Wild Ones, Book 3
by Zoey Daniels
eBook BIN: 05951-01909
Delia’s had more than her share of bad luck, but every time, she’s found the toughness to see herself through the bad times. She’s not sure she believes in the stories about Leman’s beasts, animals who can take on man shape. But they believe in her. These two great cats may be young, but they plan to show their human Cougar how much they appreciate what they see.
Rushing water, the creak and groan of the old mill wheel turning and the rattle of dried corn into the hopper, those were the noises that filled Delia’s days and nights. Made it hard to hear anyone speaking five feet from her ear, and impossible to pick up on anything that might be coming. She’d trained herself to observe instead. Directly or from the side, wasn’t anything that could sneak up on her. Whether it was needful or not, she often left doors open. Better to have a clear line of sight for shooting than a door that blocked her view and near about anything could knock down if it had a mind to.
And so Delia had no problem spying the fleeting black shadow sneaking through the treetops outside that shaded her mill — hers, with neither obligation nor debt owed to any man living or dead. Saw it long before her customer did, and kept one eye on the branches, one eye on the station mistress.
Delia lifted the last of the bags of dried corn from the woman’s wagon. Rosemary, her name was. Nice enough. Not over privileged in whatever life she’d lived before finding her way to Leman, and that was in her favor, but she’d come willingly and she did like to talk, which counted against her in the tally book.
Not that it mattered. Delia hadn’t come to Leman to make friends. She hadn’t come willingly.
What she did was make do, and make sure no one had any claim over her life. Not now, nor ever again would she let it be. That was one of the reasons she never went unarmed. The others were just common sense, especially on Leman. Things weren’t always what they seemed here, and for some that was the attraction.
Outside, the black shadow moved, setting a branch on the biggest of those trees to swinging almost playfully. Delia pressed her lips together. So. Think you’re smart, do you?
Careful, now, she warned herself. She wasn’t looking to be forever friends with Rosemary, but no need to scare the woman if there wasn’t any need. Delia checked the load in the hopper, dusted off her hands, and set her feet in a careful stance that left her right arm free and angled toward the outdoors. “How do you want that ground?”
“Mostly coarse ground for the stock, but I could use twenty-five pounds of meal for baking.” Rosemary shivered and rubbed her arms. “I expect I’d enjoy spending time in here during the summer, but it’s a bit chilly for fall, and I should be getting started back to the trading post as soon as possible. Shall we?”
Delia shrugged. The cool darkness inside the mill didn’t bother her, but as long as Rosemary gave her the down payment for grinding all this corn, no harm in obliging the lady. They could finish their business transaction out at her wagon, in the sunshine, as easy as they could here.
One was as risky as the other.
All through their dealings, Rosemary hadn’t flinched at the display of the old revolver Delia carried, but neither was she anybody’s fool. As they re-emerged, blinking, into the daylight, she glanced up and stilled. “Delia… are you aware there’s a panther lying on that branch above our heads?”
Give her more credit for that. Good few would have screamed at best or tried to cling to Delia for protection at worst.
Delia shrugged. “I noticed.”
Calmly — no profit in panic — she lifted the revolver from its holster at her hip, aimed at a spot she saw clear as opera-house glass in her mind’s eye, and fired.
Rosemary coughed in the clearing smoke. “Are you mad? My God, what if that was…”
Delia rolled her eyes as she holstered her gun. “I aimed to miss,” she said, as patient as she could be to stop Rosemary from rabbiting on about Leman’s native beasts. She’d heard the tales more times than she could stomach. Animals that could become men? Hurrah for them. If it was true, and not just a fairytale lonely women told as a comfort to themselves. “See?”
Overhead, a good three feet from the branch the panther had lain on, leaves still fell from the thin branch she’d splintered with her shot.
And no, she hadn’t missed. She had no taste for being bothered against her wish or will, but she saw no point in senseless killing, either. “Come back tomorrow for the meal,” she said. “Nothing to do until then but wait.”
“My God,” Rosemary said again. She raised an eyebrow at Delia. “You really are a stone-cold bitch, aren’t you?”
Not exactly in disapproval. Delia took it as the compliment Rosemary’d intended. Her lips quirked in reply. “Damn right.”
* * *
Delia watched Rosemary’s wagon rumble out of sight, cresting the top of the long slope down into her valley. She checked the position of the sun. Hadn’t had a reliable timepiece since she was a little girl who’d “borrowed” her papa’s fob watch to play with the dials — always had had a gift for using her hands — but she’d learned, by listening to her body and watching the skies, to know her days and her nights, and her hours, one by one.
She watched, and she waited.
Deep in the shadows, where things with dark fur might lurk curled into a ball, unseen as long as they chose to be, a pair of green-gold eyes blinked open. A long tail unfurled to hang down, swaying idly to and fro. The panther opened its mouth in a vast pink yawn filled with sharp teeth, stretched into nearly a U-shape with fore and hind paws all but touching, and prowled down a thicker branch until the effort was just too much to bother with and it — he — laid down again, stretched out as comfortably as if he were a ship’s mouser in a fortified sunbeam.
Delia put a hand to her hip. She had no doubt the beast could hear her. If she was wrong, body language crossed all sorts of boundaries. Guns trespassed over more. “Think you’re smart, don’t you?”
With his mouth slightly open, whiskers crinkled, she’d swear the beast laughed at her.
Delia unholstered her gun. Next best thing to antiquated, like the rest of her goods and gear, rescued and fixed up, it still served her well as long as she served it well. Cleaning the old girl would be her night’s entertainment, and while it might not be as satisfying as some of the games she’d played when she was younger — games with sleek, lithe men who had quick, wicked tongues — it was useful. It was her life, in her own hands.
She thumbed the hammer back and spun the cylinder, making a point of replacing the spent round. Most men — and women — would at least display a whisker’s worth of wariness right about then.
The panther? He just watched, either bored or fascinated. Never could tell with those of the feline sort. The panther’s tail swayed, tick-tock, idle and hypnotic if one allowed that.
Delia squinted down the revolver’s line of sight instead. “Never did care for cats,” she said. “Too sneaky. Too high an opinion of themselves.”
Even if, to her biased eye, this panther was a prime example of its sort. Young, strong, healthy. Handsome. Sleek with the sort of tight muscle that’d make him so fast he could dodge through raindrops and maybe even dodge her best shot. A strong head, large and square, with a broad nose and a narrow muzzle. At first glance the dusty undercoat beneath the black rosettes that made him seem dark as night.
The panther rolled to his back with all four paws dangling above him and writhed sinuously. His silky black tail whipped a dust storm up on the bare ground.
Too bad he ruined the overall effect with a tremendous sneeze when the dust reached his nose. Not that he let it stop him; oh no, not this one. He wrinkled his muzzle, licked his whiskers, and mewed. Mewed, for pity’s sake, sounding for all the world like a helpless kitten begging for warm milk.
She wiped her mouth to rub away the smile that threatened to break through. If she encouraged this rascal she’d never see the end of him.
Would that be so bad? asked a small, traitorous voice inside her head.
Yes, Delia answered, closing the lid on that discussion with a sharp snap! before it even properly started.
The panther, still on his back, batted at the air, the invitation clear for her to come and play with him, please, pretty please?
Again, Delia had to hide her smile, but it wasn’t as easy this time. “You’re going to have to work a lot harder than that to impress me,” she informed him, slipping the revolver back into its holster. “You can’t win my favor by slink, prowl, or stare.”
The panther tilted its head. If he were human, that would have been a look that came with a question mark attached. If he were one of Leman’s peculiar beasts that weren’t just beasts — well, who knew?
“I’d be a tough mouthful to chew,” Delia told him, cross for some reason she didn’t care to examine too closely. She turned her hip to the panther and touched the holster. “Go on, get out of here. I only miss on purpose, and I only miss once.”
The panther’s tail swayed, tick-tock. Between the natural breaks in the wall of white noise, water and turning wood, that filled her world, she heard something odd. Sounded like a rusty saw rasping through stone. A natural vibration with undertones that carried, seeming to reverberate against her skin and set her prickling both hot and cold, wide awake and short of breath.
Huh. Oh, he did think he was smart. Delia crossed her arms under her breasts and lifted her chin. “Don’t have much to recommend it as purrs go. What do you have to be pleased with, anyhow?”
In answer, he lifted a paw to his mouth and began to wash it.
Delia scoffed — at him, at herself. “Nonsense,” she muttered. “Got no time for nonsense.”
Behind her. Purr.
No sane woman, man, or prey animal would turn its back on a panther in clear sight, poised to pounce on a tender morsel.
Which was why Delia did just that, walking away. Rosemary’s corn was loaded safe in the hopper. She’d come back later, after the sun had passed its zenith, and the cat had gone hunting elsewhere.
Meantime, she had plenty else to be getting on with. Alone. The way she liked it.
* * *
The walk from mill to farmhouse wasn’t a lengthy one. Close enough to soothe herself to sleep with the sound of running water — when she could sleep, which wasn’t often. Once a body got accustomed to looking over their shoulder every other step they took, it was harder than hell to shake the habit.
Short or long, Delia made the trip as quick as she could. She didn’t fear nor care for cats in trees, but only a fool wouldn’t keep an eye out for the deadly water lizards which lurked by the sides of the stream. They seemed cumbersome and slow on land, but that was a deceptive thing. They could take a deer down in minutes and drag it under the surface, never to rise again. She’d seen it herself. More, she’d caught them sneaking around the house twice. A woman alone was nothing but food to the lizards, and she knew it. Yet another reason to keep an eye out.
She wondered if the water lizards ate cats, too.
She found herself glancing over her shoulder, where the cat had been. Not to make sure he was all right. That’d be foolishness. No, just to… see.
And what she saw made her not sure whether she wanted to groan, or would even so much as be tempted to smile. Looked like her panther had a friend. Must’ve been hiding before. Or hunting. Wish he’d been snacking on ‘gators, Delia thought. A little larger and lighter in color than his friend, this new mountain lion sat nose-to-nose with the other one, looking for all the world like they were conferring between themselves.
The smaller one –”her” panther — licked the other’s face. The mountain lion sneezed, cuffed him with one massive paw, and oh, that was it. Her panther loosed a delighted yowl and fell upon the other. Two shakes of a tail and the pair were wrestling, rolling about like a pair of barn kittens in the browning late autumn grass of her valley.
Wonder if they’re a mated pair, Delia thought idly, lingering when she should have been moving despite knowing better. Didn’t think males often went for males, but no, that’s Old World rules, not how life goes on Leman. Could be they’re lovers… in one shape or another.
Sure looked happy. Careless, carefree as they played with one another, but she could see the affection too. Almost made her lonely. Made her wish, just for one moment, she’d let herself play with the cat, or —
Oh. Oh. That wasn’t wrestling they entertained themselves with, not anymore. Delia stood still as a target waiting for the sound of a gunshot, unable to push her feet forward or close either eyes or mouth.
The two cats had started innocently enough, or perhaps so they’d only wanted her to think. Maybe it was all foreplay. No mistaking their true purpose now the mountain lion had come out on top and mounted the panther.
Delia’s head spun. She knew machines, not animals, but that wasn’t physically possible. Was it? By the old world rules, no, but this is Leman, and anything can happen… as she saw for herself. The mountain lion had the panther’s scruff clamped between his teeth, not breaking the skin, and his thrusts were not gentle.
The panther purred on, but in a way that made Delia shiver. Sounded less like a cat and more like a man growling with pleasure. He raised his head, eyes slitted, and writhed back against his — lover, she guessed — for more.
The soft skin of Delia’s inner thighs grew slick. She became aware of a pulsing between her legs. Been years since she’d felt that way. Hadn’t even entertained herself at nights. Thought her more primitive lusts had been as good as dead, but now, watching these two —
Oh. Delia’s stomach clenched, as did her cunt, both empty but letting her know of their hunger. Watching these two, that was an adventure, and now she had her proof. They were no ordinary cats. She couldn’t have described how they did it, or what it had been like to look at — over in an instant — to witness their changing forms. All she could say was: one minute, two cats mating. Next minute, a pair of men. Men the likes of which she’d never seen, one taller and slightly fairer, buried balls-deep in the smaller, darker man.
They loved what they did to each other, for each other, Delia could tell. No faking the eager thrust and the pumping of hips, nor the jutting erection that hung heavy beneath the smaller man. He had to take all his weight on hands and knees to keep braced against the bigger man and his plundering cock, but he was a pushy sort of beast and tossed his head back again, demanding.
Yes, that — the larger of them reached beneath to take cock in hand and stroke the darker one in time with his thrusting. Sweat beaded on their skin and ran down their sides in fat drops. They had to be roasting.
Delia felt the small explosion of pleasure deep inside herself when the bigger man roared — yes, roared, there was no other word for it — and shuddered to a stop. A twist of his wrist drew the smaller panther to the same conclusion, jets of semen spattering the ground beneath them.
For a moment, all was quiet save for the sound of the water, the wind, and their breathing.
Then, the smaller of the men lifted his head and licked his lips clean of sweat. He looked at her from the side, well proud of himself, still stuffed with cock and glorying in being filled.
The bigger man stroked his lover’s back with odd gestures almost like kneading, almost like massage. He lifted an eyebrow at her. Fixing her in his sights.
Together, they purred.
Play. Come play with us, come play our games. See, such fun. Come play.
Delia hesitated… “No.” She shook her head hard and forced herself to keep moving. Not once did she allow herself a glance back, oh no. She knew better than to let herself care for something. Anything. She’d learned that lesson hard and young, the end. Besides, she had work to do, damn it, and she’d better be getting on with that instead of lazing about.
But be damned if she could forget her tingling flesh and buttery thighs, begging for her to turn around and go back. Still. No. No matter what she might have wanted to do, “want” didn’t measure up to duty, anyhow. She couldn’t let it be so.
She’d learned that lesson too.