BAYON Chapter 2
Bayon fought for control.
He was acutely aware of the woman sprinting mere inches behind him even as they moved through the thickening shadows of Melton, the small town several miles north of the bayou where he'd tracked the bastards who'd attacked Ashe. Keira needed him calm. His mind focused on escaping into the nearby swamp before the humans returned to discover she was missing.
Not acting like a raving lunatic who wanted to grasp her by the shoulders and demand to know what the hell had happened to her.
The memory of the day she'd disappeared was seared into his brain.
Twenty-five years ago, she'd left the Wildlands to visit her human lover and then...nothing.
Her brother, Parish, had sensed she was in distress, but he hadn't been able to reach her before she'd vanished off the face of the earth.
Eventually they'd had to accept she was dead, and Bayon had secretly gone into a mourning that had matched Parish's. Only his was worse, because while Parish had received the sympathy of the entire Pantera community, Bayon had been forced to keep his own grief shoved deep inside, pretending as if his life hadn't come to a shattering end on that day.
Now...now, he didn't know what the hell to think.
Keira was alive.
But she wasn't the same bad-ass female who'd been the leader of the Hunters.
Once she'd stood tall and proud, her body lean but powerful. Her dark hair had been threaded with hints of fire and her skin kissed with a deep honey tone.
And her eyes had been a magnificent gold with starbursts of emeralds in the center.
Now her hair was limp, her skin pale, and her eyes so dull he barely recognized her. Even worse, her mind was obviously broken to the point she couldn't even remember him.
But she was alive.
His cat snarled deep inside him, struggling to reach out to the woman who'd once touched him at his most primitive level.
His emotions were a dangerous brew of elation, shock, guilt, and overall a murderous rage at whoever was responsible for keeping this exquisite woman locked in a cage like a fucking animal.
Keeping himself from exploding was taking everything he had as they traveled silently through wetlands surrounding Melton, the dusk turning to night as they left behind civilization and eventually arrived at the edge of the Wildlands Which explained why he hadn't immediately noticed, when he passed over the magical border, that she'd halted on the other side.
Belatedly realizing she was no longer behind him, Bayon whirled around to discover her crouching at the edge of their territory, that look of terror marring the beauty of her face.
His heart twisted as he cautiously made his way back to her shivering form. He could sense her bone-deep weariness, but this was more than just collapsing in exhaustion.
She was being tormented by some inner demon.
"Keira?" He kept his voice soft.
"What is it, honey?"
She shook her head. "I don't
He reached out to stroke a hand over her dark head, only to yank it back.
She'd asked him not to touch her.
It was a request he intended to honor.
"Remember what?" he prompted.
"Anything." She frowned, her fingers twisting together as she stared at the lands that she'd once known with the intimacy of a lover. Her duty as the leader of the Hunters meant she'd patrolled every inch of the Wildlands.
Night after night. "No, that's not right. I have memories, but they're like puzzle pieces I can't put together." There was a long pause, her heavy breathing emphasizing the effort it was taking not to bolt in terror. "How long?" Bayon frowned. "What?"
"How long was I gone?"
He grimaced. This wasn't a
conversation he wanted to have. Not until she was stronger.
He crouched beside her. "It's going to be all right."
There was a flash of fire in the dull eyes. It was a painful reminder of the old Keira.
"Don't patronize me."
He bit back a curse. Dammit. They didn't have time for this. She was sick, and exhausted, and in dire need of shifting.
"Keira, I don't know what the hell happened to you, but I can sense that your cat has been forced into hibernation. The only way to heal you is to get you into the Wildlands." She licked her lips, her heart pounding so loudly he feared it would attract the natural predators of the swamp.
"I know I need it."
He inched closer, hoping the
proximity of his cat could offer comfort.
"But there's something that bothers you?"
"It frightens me."
"I'll take you to Parish," he promised.
The two siblings had been closer than most since they'd been destined to be Hunters together. "No one will bother
"I can't." She reached out, her nails sinking into the flesh of his arm. "Not Parish."
Bayon frowned. "Do you remember him?" he asked.
"I...it's beginning to come back, but it's still fuzzy." She bit her lower lip, her fear palpable in the air. "Please, don't make me do this."
He tilted his head so he could hold her skittish gaze. "Easy, Keira."
"Then a Healer."
"No." Her nails dug deeper, the scent of his blood filling the air. "Only you."
"Honey, there's no way I can keep your return a secret." He tried to calm her rising hysteria.
There was a choked sound, as Keira turned her head to hide her expression.
"I don't want anyone to see me like this.
A dagger being shoved into his heart would have been less painful than those low, traumatized words.
"No," he snarled, his body vibrating with emotion. "Keira, you're a miracle."
"That's not what they'll see. They'll want to try and fix me. Or worse, they'll lock me away."
"I would never let them hurt you."
"There's something else.
Something..." She shook her head.
"Please, Bayon, I'm not ready." The brief flare of joy as his name unconsciously slipped from her lips was crushed by her heartrending plea.
Bayon wasn't modest. He had any number of talents, not the least of which was the ability to directly connect with the inner cat of his people. It was a rare skill that was particularly useful when dealing with a Pantera who'd gone feral.
But he wasn't a Healer. Hell, his bedside manner would have him run out of the faction within the first day.
Unfortunately, Keira was depending on him.
For now he'd have to take on the role of caregiver.
He glanced toward the Wildlands, knowing he had to get Keira into the magic of their home. But how could he keep her presence a secret? Parish would scent her...
"The caves," he muttered. "Parish is busy organizing the Hunters, not to mention caring for his mate." He grimaced. Parish had hauled all of Keira's possessions to the caves where they'd played as children, refusing to dispose of them no matter how many years passed. "No one will notice you're inside unless they come looking." She turned back to study him with an unsettling intensity. As if she were trying to determine if he could be trusted.
"You'll keep them away?"
He gave a slow nod. Parish and the others would kick his ass when they discovered he'd kept the stunning truth from them, but right now all that mattered was getting Keira home so she could be healed.
"I swear." There could be no
mistaking his sincerity and she gave a slow, hesitant nod. Then, moving until they were nose to nose, he held her gaze.
"But once I release your cat, Parish will sense the bond. The only way to keep your presence a secret is to imprint myself on you."
Long ago, a Pantera parent could deny a potential mate for one of their children.
The elders had forbidden the practice, but in olden days the purity of bloodlines had been far more important and there were families who were willing to condemn their child to a life separated from their destined mate rather than dilute their pedigree.
Of course, a Pantera male desperate to claim his lover couldn't be easily denied. They discovered a way to smother the family bond with their own scent. It was temporary, but it allowed the pair to avoid their family long enough to discover if they were truly meant to be mated.
Over time it had developed into a declaration of love between couples who weren't yet prepared to become fully mated.
Like humans becoming engaged.
She trembled, her face coated with a thin layer of perspiration. She was on the edge of collapse which was no doubt the only reason she didn't argue.
He lowered his head until his face was buried against the curve of her neck, his lips teasing her silken skin.
"Let me in, honey."
He stroked his lips to the pulse that thundered at the base of her throat, his tongue making a quick swipe over the flesh. Abruptly, his cat strained at the leash for more.
More heat. More skin. More Keira.
Christ. How had he survived even a day without this woman?
Patiently waiting until she'd tentatively relaxed beneath his touch, Bayon wrapped her in his arms. Once he was certain she wasn't going to panic, he tightened his hold, allowing his musk to wrap around her. It was the first time he'd tried to imprint himself on a female, but his most primitive instincts knew precisely what to do, trigging his male need to claim this woman.
She made a sound deep in her throat.
Not rejection. But a low sound of hunger that tumbled him over the edge of a cliff he hadn't known he was standing on.
Without warning his mouth widened and he sank his teeth into the flesh of her upper shoulder, saturating her in his scent.
She grabbed his shoulders, sighing softly as the force of his claim flooded through her, wrapping her in a layer of protection. Bayon licked the tiny wound on her shoulder as she collapsed against him, trying to be as gentle as possible as he cradled her too-thin body in his arms and rose to his feet.
A savage anger exploded through him as he realized just how delicate she'd become. Had she been starved? Beaten?
Dammit, he was going to hunt down the savages and make them scream for mercy.
Then he was going to roast them over an open fire and feed them to the gators.
Keeping well away from the patrols that guarded the borders, Bayon headed over the spongy ground toward the isolated caves at the far side of the Wildlands. Since Parish had taken them as his home no one had dared to trespass. Which meant there shouldn't be any stray intruders.
He could only hope the current leader of the Hunters was too occupied with his duties to return in the next few hours.
The moon was bathing the towering cypress trees in silver as they reached the solid land, heading toward the low rise of hills where the entrance to the caves was hidden by the thick shrubs.
Forced to bend low to keep from smacking his head on the outlying rocks, Bayon shuffled forward until he at last reached the surprisingly large inner cavern with a high, dome-like ceiling and a shallow stream on one side.
The cool, thankfully dry air wrapped around them as he headed directly to the tunnels at the back of the cavern. He felt Keira shiver and he pressed her closer to his chest, choosing the tunnel that led to the furthest end of the series of caves.
He could hear the splash of the waterfall before he hit the circular end of the tunnel. Then, stepping around the curve, he came to a halt, savoring the sight of the water tumbling off the edge of a natural opening in the ceiling to pool in the deep basin in the center of the cavern.
It was that pool that had attracted the young Pantera, their cats joyously climbing the narrow ledges that lined the walls before shifting into their human forms to splash in the fresh water.
Now the children had all grown up and there were no cubs darting through the droplets of water that shimmered in the moonlight or shouts of laughter as young boys tried to capture the interest of the girls.
The thought abruptly reminded him that he had to contact Parish. Someone had to return to tracking the bastards who'd attacked Ashe and her baby.
"I remember this place," Keira whispered softly, her gaze on the waterfall as Bayon gently lowered her so she could stand beside the pool.
Bayon tugged her to face him. "Look at me, Keira."
The eyes that remained unnervingly dull lifted to meet his steady gaze.
"It's time for me to call your cat." He heard her swallow, her eyes too large for her pale face. "You won't let anyone take me?"
"I'll protect you," he pledged, his fingers cautiously cupping her chin. "No one is ever going to hurt you again." Tilting her head back, he peered deep into her eyes and spoke the ancient words of power.
A heat prickled in the air, the magic a smothering power that slammed into Keira with a force that sent her to her knees, as a pained sound wrenched from her throat.
Bayon grimaced, hating the
knowledge that he was forcing her into an involuntary shift. It was a gift that he used when a Pantera was severely injured in their human form and needed to transform into their cat to heal. Or if the cat had become feral, unable to recall their humanity.
It wasn't something he did lightly.
Transformation was supposed to be a private, joyous event. For him to compel a shift was uncomfortably close to stealing a person's free will.
Keira tumbled to the side, then, with a burst of swirling colors, her human form was altering, the muscles thickening and the fur coating her once smooth skin.
Bayon continued to speak the low words of command, his hands held over her as her eyes abruptly glowed with power and the cat emerged with a roar of long-suppressed fury.
Sheer relief flooded through him as he took a careful step backward, giving the cat plenty of space. After being forced into hibernation for so long there was no telling what she might do now that she was wakened.
The golden eyes studied him with a predatory hunger, but clearly too weakened to pounce, she instead displayed her massive teeth before curling on the hard floor and lowering her beautiful head to her paws.
Bayon backed out of the cave, giving the cat enough privacy so she could rest in peace, while remaining close enough that the human part of her knew she was being protected.
He pulled a cell phone out of his front pocket. He carried two. One that was his private phone with all the bells and whistles. And one a burner phone that couldn't be traced.
He chose the burner. He didn't want anyone realizing he'd returned to the Wildlands.
Parish answered on the first ring.
"You have them?"
Bayon grimaced. The Hunter wasn't going to be pleased with what he had to say.
"I tracked them to a home just one block north of the schoolhouse in Melton. They'd taken off but there's a good chance they'll return. If not, Talon should be able to follow their trail." Bayon winced at Parish's brutal reprimand at not having stayed on the hunt for the intruders. "I have a lead I want to investigate. It's important." There was another furious chastisement that included Parish's opinion of idiots who couldn't follow orders and the threat of Bayon's manhood being removed by a rusty knife. "Trust me, mon ami, you'll be the first to know when I have info I can share. Oh, and tell Talon that in the attic of the house he'll find a metal collar. I think it has some sort of toxin on it so he'll have to be careful, but he needs to bring it back for the Healers to study. It might be important. I'll be in touch as soon as I can," he promised before shutting off the phone and shoving it back into his pocket.
Parish was furious, but he wouldn't hesitate to send Talon back to the house.
Which meant that Bayon had a few hours at least to concentrate solely on helping Keira. A duty that might not be his by blood, but was surely his by right.
Keira had always belonged to him.
Even if she'd been too damned stubborn to admit it.
Keira wasn't surprised that she dreamed she was in her cat form. It was how she hung on to what little remained of her sanity.
But the dreams had never been so tangible she could actually feel the sun slanting over her slumbering body, warming her pelt with a delicious heat, or hear the sound of splashing water playing like a symphony in the background.
She desperately tried to cling to the dream. She didn't want to wake to find herself in the cramped attic with the collar wrapped around her neck and the stench of the nearby humans making her want to hurl.
But there was something that felt like a rock digging into her ass, and a strange heat pressed against her back.
Slowly she forced open her eyes, tensing as she realized she wasn't in the cage. This was...a cave.
But not just any cave. Her favorite cave.
And she was most definitely in cat form, lying in the late morning sunlight.
Which meant she'd been asleep for hours.
Without thought, she was shifting back to human, whirling around to find a beautiful golden puma slumbering directly behind her.
The name came easily, her mind slowly beginning to clear as she breathed in his warm, musky scent.
Home. Dear lord. She was home.
Distantly she was aware that she was completely nude, the side effect of being forced into a shift, and that there were still large holes in her memories. But suddenly she was consumed with the need to prove this was more than a dream.
That she was really, truly saved.
"Bayon," she murmured softly, reaching to run her fingers through his soft pelt.
He was a magnificent cat.
Large, muscular, fiercely male.
She'd been overwhelmingly attracted to him from the moment he'd been old enough to join the Hunters. No shocker.
Bayon started breaking female hearts before he ever left the nursery.
He was gorgeous, brash and too damned charming for his own good.
And as far as Keira was concerned, he'd also been firmly off-limits.
She told herself it was because he was too young for her.
All male Pantera were horndogs, or rather horncats, once they hit puberty, and Bayon was no different. When he wasn't training or on duty his only thought was getting laid. Keira hadn't had any interest in being another notch in his bed.
Not when she'd had far more mature lovers who could ease her needs.
The sort of lovers who understood her position as the leader of the Hunters, and never crossed her barriers.
Bayon wouldn't have recognized a boundary if it bit him on the ass.
But a part of her had always known that was an excuse to shut down his persistent pursuit of her.
Deep inside she'd been a coward.
In hindsight it was easy to see.
Bayon was too bossy, too demanding, too...everything, to be a comfortable partner. And for a woman struggling to maintain her alpha status, it'd been easier to slam the door on the fragile bond she could sense trying to form between them than to struggle against Bayon's natural tendency to dominate.
Now, however, she didn't give a shit about complications or politics or any other stupid reason she shouldn't give into her needs.
Her cat had been without touch far too long, and her female knew exactly which man she wanted to ease her hungers.
On cue, Bayon lifted his head, his eyes more gold than green when he was in his cat form, warming with a genuine pleasure as he shifted in a flurry of magic.
Keira shivered beneath a blast of lust as the cat was replaced with a large, delectable male dressed only in a pair of faded jeans. Oh, shit. His chest was even broader than it had been, and tattooed with tribal markings that flowed down the side of his lean waist.
He'd hardened over the years.
Matured into the lethal warrior she'd sensed from the beginning. But there was still a twinkle of the boyish charm deep in his eyes.
She growled low in her throat as she kneeled directly in front of him, shoving her fingers into the satin gold of his shoulder length hair.
"Welcome home, honey," he
murmured, his voice still thick with sleep.
Acting on pure instinct, Keira leaned forward to kiss the lips that she'd fantasized about in the privacy of her bed. Instant, molten heat flared through her. Oh god, he tasted so good. Male spice and pure power.
She moaned as nerve endings she hadn't felt for years sparked to life. Her fingers tightened in his hair as his lips parted in ready response, a tantalizing musk filling the air with the scent of his arousal.
"Christ, I missed you," he muttered against her lips.
Her desire flooded through her, the need to be close to this man so intense it was painful.
"Touch me," she pleaded, arching her back so she could press the tips of her aching breasts against his chest.
A moan was wrenched from his
throat, but even as his hands cupped her hips, he was lifting his head to study her with a wary expression.
With a shove, she had him flat on his back. Quickly straddling his hips, she allowed her hands to explore the smooth terrain of his chest.
"I need to feel your touch," she said in husky tones, her breath hissing through her clenched teeth as he spanned her waist, before his fingers skimmed up her sides to cup the small mounds of her breasts. "Yes," she said in approval, leaning forward to spread a path of kisses over the silken heat of his skin, pausing long enough to lick a flat nipple.
He shuddered, his erection thickening to press against the zipper of his jeans.
Deliberately Keira ground herself against his bulge, her pussy growing wet. She needed that hard cock deep inside her.
His slender fingers teased her nipples with exquisite expertise, his touch sending shockwaves of pleasure through her shivering body. She released a shaky breath, craving him with a force that defied logic.
There was a flash of heated gold in his eyes as his cat responded to her touch, but even as a purr of approval rumbled through her chest, Bayon tensed beneath her.
"Wait, Keira," he growled.
She nipped his collarbone, hard enough to draw blood. "No, don't stop." With a muttered curse he surged to the side, reversing their positions until she was on her back and he was perched on top of her.
Keira might have protested if it didn't feel so damned good to have his weight pressing against her trembling body. Her legs were spread to allow his lower body to rest between them, his fully erect cock pressing near her precise point of pleasure.
Bayon scowled. "What's going on?" Her gaze dropped to admire the bulging muscles of his biceps, oddly disturbed by the searching question in his eyes.
She didn't want to think. She wanted to feel.
"You're the last man who needs an explanation for what's going on," she said, refusing to dwell on the number of females who'd enjoyed Bayon's touch.
The thought was far more painful than it should be. Then she stiffened, struck by a horrifying fear. "Unless you're mated?"
His scowl deepened. "Christ, no." Sheer relief had her reaching up to frame his face in her hands, tugging his head downward.
"Then kiss me."
He made a sound deep in his throat as he allowed his mouth to crash into hers, kissing her with a raw hunger that demanded capitulation. A capitulation Keira was eager to give.
So long as it was on her terms.
Angling her hips so his cock pressed directly against her clit, she bit the tongue he shoved into her mouth, before sucking it with a rhythmic insistence that had him moaning in sheer male need.
Her fingers skimmed over his bronzed face, taking an amazing delight in the hard angles and planes. He wasn't pretty. He was too male, his features too bluntly carved. But he had a compelling beauty that enthralled her.
Taking her time, Keira memorized the prominent line of his cheekbone and the sensuous curve of his lips. During the brutal years she'd been held captive, she'd discovered that she had no regrets for the things she'd done, but she had plenty of regrets for the things she hadn't done.
Things like this.
She stroked the line of his stubborn jaw, relishing the rough stubble of his beard as she rubbed herself against the delicious hardness of his erection.
Bayon growled, then with a last thrust of his tongue he wrenched his lips free to bury his face in the curve of her neck.
He bit into her flesh with enough pressure to send white-hot lust jolting through her.
She hissed in pleasure. Yes...oh yes.
She needed this.
Running her hands down the
impressive width of his back, she grabbed the waistband of his jeans, impatiently trying to tug them down.
"Off," she muttered in frustration.
"Wait." With a harsh groan, he arched back to stare down at her flushed face.
Her hands skimmed to the front of his jeans, struggling with the snap. "What?"
She frowned, wrapping her fingers around the massive erection that pressed against his zipper.
His pained groan echoed through the cave. "Because twelve hours ago you didn't even remember me."
She abruptly turned her head, pretending an interest in the nearby waterfall. "I was...confused."
She could feel the heat of his gaze searing over her profile. "And now you're not?"
"I know what I need."
"And what's that?"
She reluctantly turned back to meet his demanding gaze. "I need to know you're real," she breathed. "That I'm real."
"Shit." His face twisted with an agonized regret, then before Keira could guess his intent, he was seated on the ground with her trembling body cradled in his lap. "I have you," he murmured as she instinctively tried to escape his hold, pressing his cheek to the top of her head.
"And I'm not letting go. Not ever again." She should have been pissed. This was supposed to be a hot, sweaty bout of sex that would ease the hunger she'd had for this male for years and prove once and for all that she was out of the damned cell.
No fuss. No muss.
Just a glorious knowledge that she was able to do exactly what she wanted.
But as swiftly as her desire had exploded, it altered to a different, but just as savage need.
The feel of Bayon's hand softly stroking up and down her bare back. The warm, familiar musk of his cat. The sound of his heart beating beneath her ear.
She snuggled against him, feeling the magic of the land seep inside her.
It should have added to her comfort.
The magic had healed her cat. It soothed the damage done to her human form by the damned collar. And with every passing second it was repairing the damage to her mind.
All fan-fucking-tastic things, if there wasn't something buried in the depths of her brain that was wigging her out.
Something she wasn't prepared to deal with. Not yet.
"No one knows I'm here?"
"No," he swiftly assured her, nuzzling his face in her hair. He was such a cat.
"But you realize they're going to skin me when they find out I didn't tell them you're alive?"
She grimaced. It wasn't fair to force Bayon to choose between protecting her and his loyalty to fellow Hunters, but the suffocating dread that enveloped her didn't give a shit. And for now she wasn't strong enough to battle through it.
"I'm not ready," she muttered.
Thankfully Bayon didn't press, perhaps sensing she was still dangerously fragile. "Can you tell me how you disappeared?" he instead demanded.
She paused, trying to sift through the memories that were a strange patchwork of perfect clarity and murky confusion.
Now that she was home, she could clearly remember her childhood playing in this cave with Parish. And the day she'd taken command of the Hunters.
And even eyeballing Bayon when he was too occupied to notice her fascinated survey.
But the second she tried to
concentrate on the events leading up to her kidnapping, her brain began to sputter and shut down. Like a computer with a virus.
"It's still fragmented," she admitted, her voice tight with frustration.
His hand continued to run a soothing path up and down her spine. "We thought you were dead." He was forced to halt and clear his throat as he relived the day of her disappearance. "Parish could sense you were being attacked, then suddenly his connection to you was severed. He searched for you for months, but his cat was convinced you were dead."
She hissed with dark fury, knowing her death would have tormented her brother. It wouldn't be enough for Parish to mourn her passing. No, he would've made certain he carried the full weight of guilt for having failed her.
Damn, but she wanted to make those bastards pay for what they'd done.
"I think they had some sort of black magic that blocked my connection to my cat," she said.
"That's what Raphael said when he was ambushed."
Keira tilted back her head in surprise.
"Raphael was attacked?"
"Yeah, just outside the borders." Bayon's expression was guarded, as if he were hiding something from her. "He was shot with a dart by a human who was tattooed with a raven in front of a full moon."
Pain ripped through her head as a shard of memory pierced through the black hole that surrounded her kidnapping.
"The Mark of Shakpi," she breathed, squeezing shut her eyes as a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm her.
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