Run. Go until your paws bleed. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Ignore the rocks. Ignore the pain. Ignore the exhaustion.
Just don’t stop running. Don’t get caught.
Don’t forget what happens when you get caught.
The leather and metal. A rusty taste.
She stumbled and rolled to a stop.
“Fuck!” Riley sat up in her bed, hair flying around, as her heart beat a hundred miles an hour and the curse flew out of her mouth. Star scurried off the end of the bed to her own smaller one as Riley took a few deep breaths. Two nights in a row. Fucking nightmares. She had too much to worry about without them, and now they decided to make an appearance?
She pushed herself from the bed, gasping for air as she stumbled a little to get away from it. She couldn’t have a panic attack now. She couldn’t. None of the guys were in her room, and she didn’t want to drag herself to one of them for this. Everyone was on edge, they didn’t need this too. Not with her father prowling around, the guards, and the threats against them.
“Shit. Fuck,” she mumbled, making it to her desk and sinking into her chair. She leaned back and sighed heavily as she laid a hand over her heart and took deep breaths. “Slow down, mother fucker. Please. I can’t do this right now.”
Her heart did eventually slow down, but the entire incident made Riley irrationally angry. There was nothing to fear anymore. She’d won. She’d freed her pride; she’d taken out that piece of shit, Abel. He was going to prison for a long time, and it was unlikely that he would cause anyone problems for the rest of his miserable life.
“Why are these nightmares so much worse than the ones after the first kidnapping?” She hissed, leaning her elbows onto her desk. “I just… want everything to be normal again.” She blinked back tears.
Two days. In the two agonizing days since her father and the SSTF had shown up, nothing showed any signs of being normal again. The SSTF was breathing down their necks, getting into their shit, and causing general mayhem around the property. Her father…
Well, Riley snarled to herself, that asshole is a whole different load of problems.
She checked the time on her computer and groaned. It was only three in the morning. The only people who would be awake would be their protection detail. The night crew, anyway. Those guys were even weirder than the ones she dealt with during the day. Like fucking creepers, they didn’t talk. They just wandered the grounds like a bunch of goddamn serial killers.
She stood up slowly. A shower might help her relax, so she made a beeline for her bathroom. She turned the water on as hot as she could get it and pulled off the very little she had worn to bed. Normally she slept nude because one of the guys stayed with her, but the last two nights she hadn’t been in the mood.
And then the nightmares started back up and she was thankful they weren’t there for it. They would have flipped out, and she definitely wasn’t in the mood for that. They would have called the doe, Abigail, and forced her to sit down with the therapist again. Not that Abigail was bad, and nearly every shifter in Wild Junction was using her at this point. Riley just didn’t have the patience for it.
She hadn’t needed therapy for the first kidnapping, and she didn’t want it for this one. After telling Abigail about what she’d done to Abel, Riley had made it clear that any more interaction between them would be personal, not professional. Riley wanted a friend, not a therapist.
The hot water nearly burned her, but Riley soaked in it for a long time, letting it pummel the stress from her. Her days since the protection showing up had been… too much. Her dad overstepped his role constantly with Brenton, the guards mumbled under their breath about them, and they were all constantly looking over their shoulders. So, after the first full day of dealing with the SSTF, she locked her bedroom door and painted instead.
She turned the water off slowly and dried off even more slowly. There was no hurry. She pushed aside thoughts on her nightmares and the drama to focus on the painting she knew was waiting for her on the easel. She’d started it today and wondered if she should finish it. She didn’t want to, but something about it was calling her.
She didn’t get dressed, noting the futility of it. One of the guys would drop in before breakfast for a quickie, and whatever she had chosen to wear would just end up on the floor. Not that she minded, but sometimes just being naked when they popped in was a great way to surprise them. And it kept her from having to pick clothes up off the floor later.
She stopped in front of her easel and sighed, reaching to touch the painting but stopped just short. The edges were purposefully blurred. She couldn’t remember those details, and so the viewer wouldn’t be allowed to see them either.
It was an image from the hunt that was burned into her head; one that came back two nights in a row now. A nightmare, but something that needed to go on canvas. Maybe once the painting was done, the nightmares would stop.
She could hope. Right?
She grabbed her paints and brushes and slowly began to work on it, filling in the details she could remember. The forest in Texas where her sanity was on the line, and her pride hadn’t been there to save her. She’d had to save herself that time, and she’d won.
Goddamn nightmares. She’d won, and yet it still haunted her. Winning should have fixed this.
“Winning should have fixed this,” she whispered softly, an edge of desperation in her voice. It was a creeping feeling, the desperation. The feeling of being hunted, of being just barely out of their reach. The knowledge of what failure meant. Those were the things that haunted her. Not Abel’s face. Not the cold hunter who had a cruel smile and a sick sense of humor.
She looked at her hands. They were still trying to finish the healing process. A few stragglers remained, small scars that would fade, one of the deeper cuts still slightly scabbed. Thank god for fast shifter healing, she thought, or her hands would have been wrecked from the event.
She lost track of time while she worked, forgetting the drama around her. Her focus and her memories were locked on the painting and what it showed. She wondered if the emotions it evoked in her would be what a viewer felt when they saw it.
A knock on her door caught her attention, and she was momentarily startled. A quick check of the time showed six am, and she knew it must have been one of the guys.
She grabbed her robe from the back of her desk chair and swung it on as she walked to the door. She barely opened it and saw Zachary standing patiently outside her door.
“Good morning,” she whispered, a small smile forming at the sight of her pale, inked, and massive white tiger in only his sweats.
“Good morning, baby,” he whispered back. She saw his ice blue eyes drift down and knew he was taking in the sight of her in her robe. She could see the appreciative gleam that filled them. Yeah, staying undressed had definitely been the right decision. “Can I come in?”
“Of course,” she pulled the door open and he stepped past her. Star ran out of the room as Zachary entered it, making him curse as he tried not to step on the tiny tripod. The moment she closed the door, he scooped her up and, with a gentleness only Zachary could surprise her with, laid her on the bed.
“Love,” she chuckled softly, “I was painting. Can I go back to that?”
“I didn’t see you yesterday,” he growled softly, nuzzling into her neck, his large body over her own, making her feel tiny. She was tiny, but Zachary and Brenton both had a way of making her feel so terribly small underneath them: small in ways that Andrew, Troy, and Gabe couldn’t. “Except at meals, and even then, you disappeared the moment they were over.”
“I’m avoiding him,” she sighed, a shiver running through her as he bit down on her neck with enough pressure to remind her who was in charge.
“We know,” he murmured, licking the spot he’d just bitten. That made her wet, the primal urge to submit to the dominate tiger making her want to beg for his attention. “Brenton fucking hates him, by the way.”
“I couldn’t tell,” she said with a dripping sarcasm that made Zachary laugh.
“I do, too,” Zachary whispered, his hand reaching down to pull on the rope that held her robe closed. The knot she’d hastily tied came undone, and his deep growl at her nudity made her hotter than hell. “But let’s not talk about your dad right now. There seems to be something much more important that needs attention.”
“What’s that?” She asked, a shake in her voice as his large hand traveled leisurely up and down her left thigh.
“You,” he snarled, capturing her mouth. She moaned as his tongue dove in and played with hers, and she ran her hands up his arms to his shoulders.
When the kiss broke, Riley was momentarily dazed, forgetting all the things that had been weighing on her mind before he’d come in. These men could do terrible things to her and her attention span, that much was certain.
Zachary was kissing his way down her body when a second knock interrupted them. He growled into her breasts before turning to glare at her door. She laughed and slapped his shoulder.
“You’re dressed, go answer it,” she chuckled. “I’ll cover up, so they don’t see anything.”
“Fine,” he groaned, lifting off her, and she watched him stomp to the door. She ignored his growling, knowing he was just being a cranky-butt at the interruption.
The scent hit her when the door opened. A lion. A male one at that. She stiffened only for a moment before she recognized it was Brenton.
“Well, I was beaten to the punch it seems,” their Alpha chuckled, looking from Zachary to Riley. She smiled at him, and teasingly pulled the robe over herself, making him narrow his eyes. Never had she denied him the sight of her, and she relished the near predatory way he disapproved of it.
They hadn’t had sex since before the hunters captured them, and they both knew why. It was time to change that. She wasn’t going to let Abel take her love and pleasure away from her.
She was also horny as hell thanks to Zachary, and the thought of both of them in that moment was something that made her very excited.
“Going to come in?” Zachary pressed, leaning against the door frame. Brenton shook his head slowly, and she felt wanton at the look he was giving her.
“No. I’ll be back for you later, beautiful,” Brenton growled softly at her. She raised an eyebrow and bit her bottom lip as Zachary laughed, looking between them.
“Alright, brother,” Zachary said, closing the door as Brenton strolled away. By the time he looked back her, she was frowning a little.
Something about Brenton not wanting to join them made her a little upset. Zachary must have noticed because when he got back to the bed, he kissed her slowly.
“He wants some alone time with you, and so do I.” He murmured, ending with a growl.
“Oh,” she gasped as he latched onto one of her nipples and stroked it with his tongue. “I thought he…”
“Was avoiding you?” Zachary growled after releasing her poor nipple. “Never.”
“No, just…” she sighed and shook her head. “Nothing.”
“You two need some time alone, and things will work themselves out,” he whispered, kissing her collarbone. “Let him order you around a little and feel powerful. He’s feeling a little out of control, right now. And you need to remember that he loves you more than anything. We all do.”
“And I love you,” she whispered, and his responding growl told her things were about to get a bit rough. He moved over her body, a grin spreading over his face.
“Roll over,” he growled, “and I’ll make you say that again. Let’s stop with the heavy shit for the morning.”
“Good idea.” She smiled and rolled over, pushing her ass up at him. He rolled his hips against her ass, and she could feel his hard on, ready and willing to send her to heaven.
He grabbed both her wrists and pulled them over her head, forcing her chest to the bed. The robe slid and bunched up on her back, leaving her bare to him. He must have freed himself with one hand while he held her with the other, because she moaned at the feeling of his bare cock rubbing against her.
“Zachary,” she whimpered. But he didn’t give her what she wanted. Instead, that free hand slid between her legs and began to rub her clit, making her buck into him.
“Riley,” he growled back.
“Don’t tease me!” She begged, trying to look at him. He was a presence looming over her, massive and in control. He slid a finger into her and she moaned, trying to move her hips for more. She was more than ready for him, and they both knew it.
“I’ll tease you as much as I please, baby,” he growled, shoving a second finger into her. She gasped as he slowly fucked her with his fingers. She grew hot, her cheek pressed into the sheets. He released her wrists and sat up while he toyed with her. She grabbed the sheets and moaned into the bed.
“Z-Zachary,” she whimpered, and he only chuckled at her in response.
She felt him hit her g-spot and bit back a scream as he worked his fingers inside her. She felt the orgasm build and build, taking her thoughts far, far away from her worries.
Then he stopped, and, before she could complain about it, she felt his cock slide into her with a single, forceful thrust.
“Oh, fuck,” he growled down at her. She hissed in pleasure at the full feeling of him seated completely inside her.
She felt him pull out slowly and ram into her. This time the scream couldn’t be stopped, and he snarled as he picked a back-breaking pace. She felt like he would rend her in half as she shoved her face into a pillow. Zachary was able to hold the headboard as he thrust into her.
Her first orgasm, already primed thanks to him, came quickly. Her eyes rolled back a little as he sent her over the edge. The ripple running through her lower abdomen and the release of it only made her greedier, though. She pushed her ass back toward him, letting him know to continue the rough pace he’d set.
“Damn it, Riley,” he snarled, slowing for a moment. He let go of the headboard and grabbed her hips, and she knew he was looking to control her. “You are going to kill me.”
“Mm, good,” she taunted. She tried move her ass back onto him again, but this time he just held her and stopping thrusting.
“No, no,” he growled, “bad girls don’t get to pick the pace, you little arsonist.”
“Zachary!” She gasped, indignant. This prick was serious! He’d never stop halfway like this, there was no way.
Then he pulled out of her slowly, and that made her whimper. He flipped her over and she blushed at the slow, hungry look he ran over her body. She squeaked when he grabbed her thighs and gasped as he slid back into her.
“Scream for me, baby,” he snarled, and she obliged as he did things with his hips that she didn’t think were possible. He rolled them like a stripper, and that blew her mind. She was pushed up into the headboard, that he was once again using as leverage. Her legs wrapped around him, and she felt her toes curl. The second orgasm didn’t just happen. It crashed into her like a semi.
“Zachary!” She screamed, scoring his sides with her nails, as she rode out the explosive finish. He only kept pumping until a roar tore from the back of his throat, one that made Riley even more turned on and a little scared at the same time. She heard something crack above her as Zachary stopped moving, filling her.
“Oh, baby,” he panted. “Fuck, I broke your headboard. Cracked it, anyways.”
“I love you,” she told him softly. She didn’t care about the headboard. One of them would order a new one for her. Or she would. Someone would get to it eventually.
“There it is,” he growled, pulling out of her slowly and moving to kiss her. After a gentle and deep kiss, he smiled. “I love you, too.”
“Nap?” She asked with a small smile. “Breakfast won’t be until sometime around nine.”
“Are you asking me to cuddle?” He teased, and she nodded. “I can do with some cuddles. Hold on.”
She let him rearrange them and after a moment, she found herself splayed out over his chest and under the blankets. She traced his tattoos lazily with a finger as he began to snore softly. She wasn’t particularly tired, but these moments were everything to her.
“Stop,” he growled softly. She looked up to his face and saw one of his eyes open, those icy blues that penetrated her no matter his mood. She could have sworn he was asleep already.
“Why?” She smiled to him, tracing one of his tattoos lower down his abdomen.
“I thought you wanted to nap,” he said, grabbing her hand. “That is not napping.”
“Aw, Zachary,” she teased, kissing his chest. “Are you cranky?”
“No,” he sounded petulant. She narrowed her eyes a little.
“You aren’t sleeping, are you?” she asked gently, lifting herself to look down at him.
“Nap.” He pulled her back down, and she huffed.
“Cranky cat,” she mumbled, and he growled softly. “Fine, you nap, and I’ll lie here.”
“You aren’t sleeping either, or you would have been dead to the world when I knocked,” he huffed back at her. “Don’t deny it.”
“I’m not,” she sighed, tracing his tattoos again. “Sleeping or denying it.”
“Nightmares,” he whispered. Not a question, but rather a statement of fact. “You should talk-”
“To Abigail. Yes, I know, it’s why I was trying not to mention it,” Riley groaned. “I don’t want to talk to Abigail. Not about that. I don’t think anything she’ll say can change it. Plus, you don’t talk to Abigail.”
“I have no reason to,” Zachary growled softly, almost defensive. Riley filed that away for later. She knew that Brenton, Zachary, and oddly, Andrew were the last holdouts in Wild Junction who hadn’t talked to the doe yet. Troy and Gabe were more than willing to talk to her, for their own reasons and for what happened with the hunters, which made Riley proud of them. But the more dominant pride members, while willing to admit they all needed to talk, were still hesitant at doing so.
“Don’t be a grumpy butt about it,” Riley poked one of his pecs and made him grunt. “If you’re going to convince me to talk with her, then you get to as well.”
“I would rather hang with the wolves,” Zachary curled a lip. Riley scoffed. Zachary liked the wolves, so his act to make it sound like such a bad thing completely failed on her.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Riley teased, scooting up to kiss her tiger’s neck. The purr that began made her pleased. Zachary enjoyed being waited on, a little. Not in the same ways as Brenton, but if Zachary could kick back and just enjoy things for a moment, he was going to.
“Please,” he murmured, rolling his head so she had more access to the sweet spot she’d hit.
“I’ll talk to Abigail about… stuff if she and I can join you to hang out with the wolves.” She threw in more kisses to his neck and his jawline. “And we can all hang out, like regular fucking people.”
“Fine,” he groaned. “We’ll go in a couple of days. Brenton and I are still helping them set up. The Colorado wolf pack is a bit weird about Thomas and his boys being here, but we’re working on allowing the guys to stay here in Wild Junction, on their own piece of property.”
“So, why in a couple of days?” Riley inquired.
“We have to schedule it with our protection detail.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Riley hissed. “I fucking hate those goddamn-”
“We agreed to it and with good reason,” Zachary cut her off. “I take it a nap is now out of the question, since you seem to be very chatty this morning.”
“Probably,” Riley sighed, sitting up, causing the covers to once again fall from them. She took a moment to soak in the sight of Zachary stretched out on the black sheets. He was a glorious thing to see, her tiger. “And I know we need them for a little while. It wouldn’t be a big deal but…”
“You should talk to him,” Zachary whispered. “I know you despise the idea, and I can’t blame you, but it might bring some resolution—or at least an armistice in the War of the Sterns.”
“The War of the Sterns?” Riley chuckled. “What?”
“Just a little… nickname floating around…” Zachary shifted uncomfortably.
“Who started it?” Riley pressed. “Come on. Who’s making bets?” She knew someone had to be.
“Uh…” Zachary began to sit up, so she jumped to straddle him.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” She laughed. “You have nicknamed my drama!”
It should have upset her, but this… this was normal. She relished in the fact that some fun could be pulled out of the situation. Not for her, but for someone at least. She could admit it was all ridiculous. Her dad, a retired Navy Seal, was now a member of the Shifter Special Task Force when she’d had no idea she was even a shifter. Her dad, the once-husband to Lily Stern, also known as the infamous thief, Isabella Gordon. Wasn’t that some shit?
“I did,” Zachary choked out, and she grinned.
“You awful man,” she teased.
“This is where I’m supposed to say, ‘Yes, and please punish me for being so awful,’ but I’m not one of the leopard brothers,” Zachary growled with a grin before flipping them over. “I don’t grovel, baby.”
“Don’t I know it,” Riley whispered, pulling him down for a kiss. “Stop taking bets, though. It’s not nice.”
“Fine,” he mumbled, returning her kiss.
“Want to hit the gym before breakfast?” She laughed. “A good workout might do us both some good.”
“Well… we don’t need the gym for a workout,” he growled playfully.
She didn’t miss the fact that he was ready for another round. No, they didn’t need a gym for a workout.