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Lani Aames - Manimal

By Janice Brooks,2014-11-24 16:38
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Lani Aames - Manimal

MANIMAL

    Lani Aames

Chapter 1

    “I can’t believe my luck. The first snowfall of the year and I have to be out in the middle of it.” Kelsey Locke grumbled loud enough for the phone to pick up what she was saying. She pushed a curly strand of dark brown hair out of her eyes and wished she’d remembered to pin it back before she left. “The wipers are on high and more snow is covering the windshield as soon as they clear it.”

    “You’re almost there, Kels.” Dee’s voice was thin and tinny coming out of the speaker. “You passed the two crooked pines, didn’t you?”

    “Yeah, a ways back.”

    Both hands tightened on the steering wheel. She never drove on snow. Never. Two hours ago when Dee offered the use of her family’s cabin at Lake Passion, there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky. With a full moon,

    she had expected an easy trip. Now, the sky was shrouded in heavy dark clouds and the road was covered in a layer of white thick enough that not a bit of asphalt showed through.

    “The lane to the cabin is just a few more miles. You’ll be all right. Hold on a sec.” There was a minute when all Kelsey could hear was the steady swish swish of the wipers and the low hum of the heater, then Dee’s voice broke through again. “Charles Leland has been calling every five minutes and now he’s text messaging.”

    Kelsey blew out a breath through tight lips. Charles was the reason she was in this situation. They had dated a few months, nothing serious, when Kelsey decided to stop seeing him. It wasn’t fair to Charles that she was in lust with another man.

    Dee’s Delights, her friend’s catering business, had provided the food for one of Charles’ business dinners, and Kelsey agreed to help out because Dee was shorthanded that night. Charles had become infatuated immediately and lingered near her most of the evening to the point of ignoring the guests he wanted to impress. Exasperated by his persistence, Kelsey agreed to a date just to make him leave her alone the rest of the evening.

    Later, it occurred to her she would have to follow through. Kelsey wished she had Dee’s forthright manner, but she accepted she wasn’t as outspoken as her friend. In her place, Dee would have told him to back off and get out of her face, but Kelsey tried to be accommodating to all, even at her own expense.

    In other words, she was a wuss.

    So she went out with Charles intending to try her best. Two of his men, who were always at his side, accompanied them at a discreet distance.

    The two men had been at the dinner, too, and initially Kelsey had been drawn to the tall, dark one. But he was all business that night and never indicated any interest in her at all. Oh, occasionally she’d feel his dark eyes on her, but when she turned to look at him, his bland expression never changed. Kelsey assumed Charles had ordered him to watch her.

    Even after she started dating Charles regularly, he didn’t act like he knew she existed as anything other than Charles’ property. Time and time again, she found herself wishing she had piqued his interest rather than Charles’. When Charles began pressuring her for sex, it finally

    dawned on her that she didn’t really want Charles. She was consumed with desire for the tall, mysterious man who always stood to the side, watching her with his penetrating gaze.

    Kelsey wouldn’t sleep with Charles while lusting after another man.

    She couldn’t even continue seeing him. She broke it off, then freely admitted to herself that she hoped the man would make a move if she was unattached.

    Except Charles didn’t think of them as detached. She’d told him it was over a couple of weeks ago, but his inflated ego rejected the possibility that any woman could say no to him. He was constantly calling her or sending flowers and gifts she promptly returned. The situation was so bad, she decided to go away for the weekend to get some work done. She even traded cell phones with Dee so she wouldn’t be distracted with ignoring his calls and messages or left without a way to call for help in case of an emergency.

    “Don’t pay any attention to him. Maybe he’ll finally figure it out.” Kelsey squinted, tucking that annoying curl behind her ear, and tried to see through the white curtain of snow that surrounded her. She felt like she was caught in a snow globe and somebody had shaken it as hard as possible.

    “Ooooh, I know. I can text him a message that’ll put an end to his bullshit once and for all,” Dee offered.

    “No, no. I don’t want to make him mad.” Kelsey knew her outspoken friend would slice him and dice him if she said the word. But she was a little wary of Charles. While his landscaping business had made him rich and influential in the small town of Shadow Valley, Kelsey had a feeling there was something more…something not quite legit that accounted for most of his money and power. She didn’t have any proof and had never witnessed anything underhanded, but the past few weeks had given her plenty of time to think. Why else would the CEO of a local landscaping company need two full-time bodyguards? Why would he need state of the art security to protect manure?

     “Are you sure? I can tell him off and explain exactly where to stick those presents of his,” Dee offered.

    “Dee, just don’t answer the messages or his calls. I’ll deal with him when I get back. I think I’m coming up on the ess curve, so I’m going to hang up and concentrate on driving. In the snow. Which wasn’t supposed to happen until tomorrow afternoon.”

    “Gee, Kels, I didn’t know you believed in the weatherman. Do you still believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, too? How about the Easter Bunny?”

    “All right. Point taken.”

    Dee snorted, an indelicate sound amplified by the speaker. “The lane to the cabin is less than a mile past the second curve, on the left. You can’t miss it.”

    “I remember. I came up here with you and your family every summer for as long as we’ve been friends.”

    “Right, second grade. You were a crybaby in kindergarten and first. Be careful, Kels.”

    “I will.”

    Just as Kelsey reached over to push the disconnect button, a movement to the right of the road caught her eye. She had the sense that it was a four-legged animal, like a large dog. Seconds later, a man, not wearing a stitch of clothing, loomed in the path of her SUV. She screamed, a short, sharp sound, as he stumbled through the snow, one hand pressing what looked like a dark colored rag to his left side, his right arm thrown up in front of his face to ward off the headlights. Instinctively, Kelsey swerved to the right and slammed on the brakes. The back of the SUV fishtailed, swinging around in a wide arc. She tried pumping the pedal lightly, but the effort was too late. By the time the SUV stopped, it had turned ninety degrees and sat crossways on the road, the front bumper less than a yard away from the naked man. Kelsey’s hands were locked around the steering wheel. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she shook as if she were the one standing naked in the snow. She caught a glimpse of her terror-stricken face in the rearview mirror. Her blue eyes were wide and fearful, and her mouth hung open as if to scream again but not a sound escaped. When she looked through the windshield again, he had disappeared. At first, she thought he’d moved on to the other side of the road. But her gaze traveled downward and she realized he’d fallen.

    What on earth should she do? Was this an act to lure her away from her vehicle so she could be hijacked, mugged, or worse? She waited a few moments, trying to decide if she should get out and help him or not. She couldn’t believe any hijacker or rapist in his right mind would run around in this weather stark naked. There would have to be an easier way to do their dirty deeds.

    The man needed help. As if suddenly released from some invisible force that had kept her hands bound to the wheel, Kelsey threw open the door and jumped out, slipping and sliding on the layer of fluff covering

    the icy asphalt. She approached the man slowly. If this was some kind of trick, he couldn’t lie in the snow for very long.

    There was something familiar about him, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. By the length of his body and long legs, he was a tall man. He sprawled on his back, his face turned away from her. She watched his broad chest and sighed in relief when it rose and fell, but the movements were shallow and belabored. Her eyes traveled downward, following the trail of hair that narrowed as it neared his belly button and pointed straight to his genitals.

    She was shocked to see that his penis was partially erect, its burgeoning length lying alongside one thigh. If she’d given it any thought at all, half a hard-on would be the last thing she’d expect in a man in his

    condition. She took a few steps closer and fell to her knees beside him.

    Up close she could see that he hadn’t been holding a dark rag to his side at all. His hand and the left side of his torso were smeared in the blood that seeped from a jagged tear at his waist, just above his hipbone. She reached out and brushed the snow away from his face, to see if he was still alive, when he groaned.

    Kelsey gasped, shocked to find that she knew the man. “Durak?” she whispered.

    Durak Voronin was one of Charles’ bodyguards-slash-henchmen, and the

    man she had lusted after for the past few months. Sometimes Charles jokingly called Durak his enforcer. And sometimes, when she looked into Durak’s hard brown eyes, she believed it…a shiver of danger would race

    through her body to merge with the physical longing.

    What was he doing out here? Had Charles instructed Durak to follow her? Kelsey could see Charles giving the order and Durak complying. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t imagine why Durak would be naked, on

    foot, and injured.

    He made another sound, interrupting her thoughts. A cross between a groan and a growl, it rumbled deep in his throat and chest. His legs jerked up as his face screwed in pain. Every muscle in his body grew taut and his arms twitched as his body curled into the fetal position. “What are you doing here?” She brushed more snow away, startled by the coldness of his skin. She scrambled out of her coat, laid it over him, and leaned in close to his ear. “I’ve got a cell phone in the SUV, and

    I can call for help. I’ll only be gone a few minutes, then I’ll come back for you and we’ll both get in out of the cold.”

    Before she could move, his hand shot out and closed around her wrist, snapping shut with the finality of a manacle. Kelsey cried out and tried to pry his fingers loose, but his grip was as unbreakable as iron. “Durak, let me go. I’m trying to help you!” she shouted, hoping he would hear her and understand. His eyes opened and he pinned her with his

relentless stare.

    “No!”

    The one word was short but powerful. Yet she didn’t know what he was saying no to. Don’t call 911? Or don’t get him in out of the cold? Both? Neither?

    “I don’t know what’s happening, but I do know one thing. I’m not going to sit out here freezing my ass off. Either let me go so I can get back in the SUV, or let me help you so we can both get warm.”

    She thought for a moment she’d lost him. He neither blinked nor lessened his grip, and it was almost as if he didn’t breathe. Then he closed his eyes, his fingers relaxing around her wrist.

    “Help me…to the SUV.”

    Kelsey breathed a sigh of relief and laid her hand over his. “All right. I’m not strong enough to pick you up. You’re going to have to try to walk.”

    He nodded. Kelsey maneuvered around until she was holding onto his body, his arm slung across her shoulders. She moved her coat around so that it covered his backside. She didn’t think it was doing him much good, but she couldn’t expose that part of him to the snow and cold again.

    He shuddered violently as she rose, forcing him to his feet. He slumped against her and she almost went down. And for a moment, she thought she felt fur, thick and warm, brush her cheek. As they uprighted again, she decided the cold had numbed her face and she was having sensory lapses. Or something. Disregarding the sensation, she took a step and Durak did the same.

    Even though the SUV was only a few yards away, it became a long walk. When they reached the vehicle, Durak folded his tall body into the front passenger seat, Kelsey’s coat covering part of him. He shivered, the chill racing through his full length.

    She opened the glove compartment and brought out a flashlight. “There’s a blanket in the back. I won’t be but a minute.”

    She didn’t know if he heard her or not because he didn’t respond. She shut the door and walked around to the back.

    Kelsey shone the beam on the ground, looking for his first set of prints. They had almost filled with fresh fallen snow, but she could still see where he had stepped. She remembered that just before Durak stumbled in front of the SUV, she’d had the impression of a large dog off to the right.

    Had Durak been attacked by a vicious dog? Could his injury have been caused by canine teeth? But that didn’t explain why he was as naked as the day he was born. A wild dog might have torn his clothing to shreds, but wouldn’t have totally destroyed them. It wouldn’t have ripped off his shoes and socks, too.

    Kelsey walked away from the road and into the trees, shining the light

    on each print, occasional splotches of blood discoloring the snow. She went deeper than she meant to, until she could only see the faint glow of headlights among the trees behind her. Here the footprints stopped and…she didn’t want to believe what she was looking at. After the last

    footprint was a pawprint. It was nearly as large as the footprints and twice as big as any dog’s pawprint she had ever seen.

    The strangest thing of all was there were no footprints mingled with the pawprints, and there were no pawprints interspersed with the footprints. The pawprints did not go off in another direction. And the footprints hadn’t come from another way. It was as if the dog had disappeared into thin air and Durak had appeared out of nowhere. It was as if…

    Kelsey didn’t finish the thought. What she was thinking was preposterous. Impossible. Not only impossible, but improbable. Ridiculous. Mad. With one last sweep of the flashlight that revealed nothing more, she ran back.

Chapter 2

    Kelsey retrieved the blanket and got in behind the wheel. She spread the blanket over Durak and turned the heater vents toward him. He huddled beneath her coat and blanket, eyes closed.

    He could be bleeding to death or suffering from hypothermia. Either way, he needed help. Kelsey eased the cell phone out of the speaker base. She squinted in the light of the dash and pressed the 9 button. Before she could reach the 1, Durak snatched the phone from her hands and slammed it against the dash.

    The effort cost him. The phone fell from his hand and he slumped back in the seat.

    “Why did you do that?” She looked at him and found him glowering at her, the glow from the dashboard giving his dark eyes an eerie cast. “I told you not to call,” he rasped.

    “No, you didn’t. But you do need help. You could be bleeding to death

    or have frostbite. In several places,” she added thinking of one extremity in particular.

    “I’m not. The bleeding has stopped.”

    “Well, something tore a chunk out of your side. You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’ve been exposed to the cold.” Kelsey picked up the wrecked phone and stared at it, bewildered. Why would he destroy their only means to summon help? What was he hiding? The two sets of prints flashed through her mind, but she pushed them away. There was a logical explanation for them. There had to be!

    Kelsey tried to get a dial tone, but the phone was dead. She dropped it in the space between their seats. “You’d better hope you don’t need help now. The nearest hospital is back in Shadow Valley!”

    “I don’t need anything but time to rest.”

    “It’s going to take more than rest to heal up that hole in your side. You need stitches,” she snapped. Immediately, she regretted the harshness in her voice. He could be dying for all she knew, yet he didn’t seem to be taking his condition seriously.

    “I’ll be fine,” he murmured.

    “You don’t sound fine. You don’t look fine, either!”

    “It might be a good idea to get us out of the middle of the road before another vehicle comes along.”

    He was right. Although she hadn’t seen another person crazy enough to

    be out in this weather for the past thirty minutes, it would be her luck for a car to come along and not be able to stop in time. With her foot on the brake, she shifted into drive and eased the vehicle around until it was on the road properly and headed in the right direction. “It’s less than two miles to the cabin.”

    “This cabin is where you were headed?”

    Kelsey pressed the gas pedal lightly. The wheels spun a few seconds, then caught and the SUV jerked forward. “Yeah. It belongs to the family of a friend of mine. You remember Dee from Charles’ dinner party. I used to come up here on vacations with them when we were kids.”

    She drove slowly around the ess curves and easily found the lane after the second one, just as she remembered.

    “We’re almost there.”

    At the end of the short lane, the headlights illuminated the rustic log cabin. Kelsey left them on to light their way. The snow wasn’t falling as thickly now as it had been and the flakes were smaller. Luckily, they weren’t the tiny icy bits that usually meant accumulation. So far

    there was less than a half-inch layer covering everything. Kelsey got out and went around to help Durak out of the car. As she fit herself under his arm, she was immediately aware that his body temperature had changed drastically. Before, his skin had felt like ice, but now it was hot to the touch. She was afraid he was becoming ill and running a fever. If he grew worse, she would have to venture out and get help thanks to his temper tantrum with the phone. His arm wrapped around her as if it belonged there, the other clutching the blanket to the injury at his side. As they trudged up the slight slope to the front porch, she was all too aware of his naked body pressed to hers. She tried to berate herself. After all, he was wounded and ill. But the pent-up lust she’d felt for him all these weeks was aching to break free.

    Shoving her inappropriate feelings aside, she found the key in the flowerpot on the window ledge next to the door. It was just as cold inside the cabin as out. She switched on the lights, grateful the power was still on, and led Durak to the couch where he curled up, another groan escaping in a ragged rush of air. Kelsey grabbed the crocheted afghan off the back of the couch and spread it over him, too. “I’ll get a fire started. It’ll be warm soon.”

    He didn’t respond and Kelsey tried not to worry as she made a fire in the large stone fireplace. She tended it carefully until the kindling caught and the logs were burning. Warmth seeped into the room. She went to Durak. His eyes were closed, and he looked as if he might be asleep. His hair was cut too short on the sides and at the nape for his angular face. A fringe of longer hair, thick and black, fell rakishly across his brow. She swept it back and laid her hand across his forehead. His skin felt hot, as if he were burning up with fever, but that could be because her hands were so cold. She could always do what her mother had done to check her temperature when she was young…kiss his temple.

    Kelsey hesitated. He was asleep or unconscious. Either way he would never know. She leaned forward and watched him for a moment. His face was lean and hard with a not-quite-square jaw and prominent brow. His

    temples were slightly sunken, framed by cranium and sharp cheekbones. Only the soft lines of his lips relieved the starkness of his countenance and provided a hint of sensuality.

    Kelsey pressed her mouth to his temple before she could give in to the impulse of kissing those lips. A secluded cabin was definitely the place, but this wasn’t the time. He felt warmer than normal, but not dangerously so. With luck, his temperature wouldn’t go any higher now that they were inside with a fire for warmth and he was wrapped protectively in blankets.

    Brushing his hair back one more time, she started to stand when he grabbed her hand and pulled her back down close to him. His eyes were wide open and looking at her.

    “This is developing into a bad habit,” she said.

    His grip was as solid as iron, and he didn’t even flinch when she twisted

    her hand one way and then another, trying to break free. He was injured, cold, and possibly ill. It didn’t make sense that she couldn’t overpower him.

    But none of this night made sense. Why was he out here in the first place? Why was he buck naked, sporting a hole the size of her fist in his side?

    Why had the huge pawprints turned into his footprints?

    “I need you,” he whispered, his voice dry and shaky.

    For a split second, a canine muzzle replaced his face. She blinked and had the feeling that he had turned from man to beast to man again, rather than the image of a large dog superimposed over him. She shook her head. She was letting her imagination run away with her.

    “What do you need?” she asked softly. “I brought plenty of food if you’d like something to eat. Or do you want water?”

    His head shook in the negative, one short sharp jerk to the side. “I want you.”

    Kelsey frowned. “You want me to what?”

    He shook his head again. “I want you, Kelsey. No time to explain, but I need to discharge.”

    “You mean you want to…” Her voice trailed off.

    “Fuck you.”

    Well, that was blunt. During her time with Charles she’d noticed Durak was a man of few words, and when he did speak he said exactly what he needed to say with no embellishment. His being delusional hadn’t changed

    that.

    “You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve been injured and you’re running a fever. When you get well, then we’ll talk.” She smiled and laid her hand over his to let him know that she was definitely interested. He shook his head yet again and scowled. “You don’t underSTAND—” And his voice rose into a howl of distress. His face once again changed

    into a canine muzzle and his hand morphed into a huge paw with claws instead of fingers. Almost instantly, he changed back to human. With strength born of panic, Kelsey jerked free of his grip. She scrambled away from him and whatever he was. It definitely wasn’t her imagination. She rubbed her wrist where she’d felt thick fur and sharp claws against her skin. Her heart hammered in her chest as she once again recalled how the pawprints had suddenly become footprints in the snow.

    “What is going on?” she shouted at him, fear making her voice quiver.

    His body jackknifed and he groaned, a deep mournful sound, as fur briefly replaced smooth, taut skin. “Werewolf,” he whispered.

    “What?”

    “I’m a werewolf. No time…no…time…” His hand-paw-hand reached for her.

    “Too much energy. Overload. Can’t control. Need to discharge now—need

    to fuck you now.”

    Kelsey drew back, beyond arm’s length, and watched him. Werewolves

    weren’t real! Yet, he was changing right before her eyes. And wasn’t that the thought she’d refused to consider while looking at the two sets of prints in the snow? That he’d somehow transmogrified from a four-legged beast into a two-legged human.

    What if the reverse occurred right now and he turned completely into a wolf? Legendary lycanthropes were ravening creatures that slaughtered anyone in their paths. Would he be any different?

    Kelsey took a step toward the door, fully intending to run to the SUV and get the hell out of there. But his voice, crackling with the effort, stopped her in her tracks.

    “I want you, Kelsey.”

    He needed her, but he also wanted her. She looked back and his hand was still stretched out toward her. He wanted her. Didn’t that make

    all the difference in the world?

    “I wish it could be different because I’ve wanted you a long time.”

    Kelsey took a step, then hesitated. “I want you, too, but I’m scared.”

    “No danger, I promise.” He changed again, from man to wolf to man. “I

    won’t hurt you.”

    With a deep breath, Kelsey made the decision to take a chance and trust him. She took his hand-paw-hand, fascinated by the way it morphed from one to the other. If having sex would release him from this flickering between wolf and human, what else could she do?

    Durak threw back the blankets and coat and suddenly the cabin was much too warm for her. His cock was fully erect, long and thick, jutting at an angle from its nest of dark hair. Heat flushed through her, hot desire she hadn’t felt in a long time curling in the pit of her belly. For months, she’d suppressed these feelings for him, thinking he was out of her reach. Now that she could allow them, they consumed her

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