“That was as much for me as it was for you.” I wanted to smack myself the second the words left my mouth.
Ritch frowned and glanced at me before focusing back on the road. “What do you mean?”
How could I save this? I was tired, injured, and clearly shooting my mouth off when I should just be quiet. “My senses are sharp. I’ve spent a lot of time alone for the last few years. Whenever I’m around other people, it’s hard to relax. Deke says I’m hypervigilant. If you’re unable to sleep, I’m unable to sleep, especially if we’re in the same room.”
Shit. I’d still said too much.
“Does that mean… at your house, you woke up every time I did?”
“Yes,” I said reluctantly.
Ritch pressed his lips together into a thin white line. “So, you heard….”
“Yes.” I’d heard every single nightmare that he cried out against. Every time he stumbled into his bathroom to retch over the toilet. Every sob he tried to smother.
It tore me up. At first, it made me think about how Kraig had suffered, brutalized for what he was, treated as less than a person. Then, as I got to know Ritch, it became about him. I wanted to give him a better life, but if I pushed his boundaries, he could decide to leave.
“Sorry.” He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “Why didn’t you have me stay somewhere else?”
“It’s not a big deal.” I tried to dismiss his concerns.
“Obviously it is. You let me put you in handcuffs.”
“So you could sleep. It’s fine. No big deal. Can’t we just forget about it?” Ritch looked at me again, so I gave him my best pitiful face. It must have worked.
Silence descended, and my eyelids grew heavy. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. So tired. The hum of the tires blended with Ritch’s breathing, and I dozed off, never fully asleep. The miles drifted away in silence until the sun had fully risen, and Christian hit his turn signal, indicating we should pull off.
I straightened and looked at the gas tank. We had a quarter tank, but the SUV was probably getting closer to empty. This place looked tiny, barely a blip on the highway. Ritch and Christian got out and started pumping for all three vehicles, talking quietly for a minute. Ritch came back to our car, and Christian went inside.
“Deke’s been calling around to clans in this area. No one’s missing any human werekin, but apparently one alpha mentioned rumors of strangers just outside his territory.”
I leaned forward. “Really?” This is what we needed. Christian and Ritch could question the humans to get more information. I looked around at the single-story buildings and the broken light at the intersection. No way would strangers blend in here. “I wonder why Deke didn’t call me?”
“Didn’t you say Christian is the tracker for your clan? It’s his job to find these guys. It’s your job to figure out how to take them down.” Ritch stood up when the gas pump shut off.
A surge of embarrassment heated my cheeks. I hated feeling useless, but I was letting my frustration turn into whininess. Ritch had just casually put me in my place, reminding me that this was a team, but without negating my role within the mission.
I resolved to do better.
Christian came out of the tiny store with a couple of bags. He walked straight to the driver’s side of my car. Ritch was unhooking the gas nozzle from the car behind us. Christian leaned in the window, handing over a bag. “Snacks and drinks,” he said.
“What did you learn?”
“The cougar clan claims some territory in those mountain peaks to the south. Apparently just east of town there’s a gorge with a good-sized river running through it. One side is steep cliffs, the other side rises in a gentler incline, but it’s covered with thick woods. Because of the strong natural cougar presence, no one hikes out there, but there have been a lot of strange cars through here for gas, and they’re all headed that way.
“Not much else out there, I guess.”
I bared my fangs. “Sounds like the perfect place to set up a lab.”
He dropped a map into the car. “Guy at the counter said this had all the local roads, because GPS isn’t going to work out there.”
The map had topographic information. “Nice. Let’s head out of town, but backtrack. Don’t want anyone getting information on our movements. I’ll study this map and see if there’s any other way to get to that gorge.
Ritch glanced at the map before he put the car in gear and pulled out behind Christian. “All better now that you have something to do?”
I grimaced. “I know why Deke was so irritated that he had to send us, because I feel like I’m back home, for all the good I’ve been doing. I need action, results. I want these bastards under my claws, paying painfully for what they’ve done.” I stretched my claws out, then sheathed them. “It’s almost a need.” The thought of bathing in their blood pleased my tiger, but I didn’t say that.
Even without revealing that much, I thought I scared him, but then Ritch asked, “Do you want to know a secret?”
“Anything,” I said.
“My whole life has felt that way. But you’re… different. I don’t feel like I’m less with you. You believe I can do anything.” He swallowed. “Like I’m important. To you.”
“You are. Ritch, you are so important. I can’t even begin to explain the way you’ve awed me since we met, but you have.”
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