PARISH CHAPTER 8
JULIA woke to a strange, yet familiar sound.
The emerging light of dawn filtered into the room, casting shadows on the walls and floor. Beneath the covers she was warm, but instinctively she knew that Parish was gone. The hunt. He would need to prepare before dawn.
Julia's head jerked around to where Parish had lain on his side, holding her, still connected to her as he soothed her to sleep. He was gone, but something else was curled atop his pillow. Julia screeched with joy, and threw off her blanket. How had he managed it? And when?
Rousing from his own sleep, gazing at her with narrowed yellow eyes, was Fangs.
"How the hell did you get here?" she asked the cat, reaching out and scooping him up, cuddling him to her chest.
He immediately balked at the closeness, clawing and mewling until she let him down. When his paws hit the sheets, he took off toward the headboard, leapt onto the edge and remained there, perfectly balanced on all four feet.
That's when Julia noticed the note, taped to the wood.
He didn't come quietly. At least until he realized who I was bringing him to.
Fangs is here, Doc.
Now you must stay.
I will look for you at the hunt.
Julia stared at the note for long seconds, then glanced down at her belly, her naked flesh, scored with four silvery claw marks. She ran her fingers over the smooth, healed tattoo. He'd truly marked her as his, and given her his heart in both action and deed. The night before she'd thought about and rejected the idea of a sign. Parish didn't have to prove anything to her. She knew that now. And yet...he'd gone to New Orleans sometime in the night while she slept. Broke into Gary's house, and retrieved the only thing she valued outside the Wildlands.
No, this wasn't a sign.
It was love and caring and listening and hoping. It was everything she'd ever wanted, ever wished for.
She gave Fangs a quick rub under his chin, jumped out of bed and headed for the shower.
* * *
"I've never seen you wound so tight," Bayon remarked, his puma shifting in and out of his leaf-green gaze as he readied for the hunt.
"I'm fine," Parish uttered, his eyes cutting from one entry point to the other.
Where was she?
Raphael had promised to bring Julia early. Didn't the Suit understand how desperately Parish needed to see his woman, scent her? Christ, he wanted her to see him hunt, recognize that he was a worthy male-that he could provide for her, always protect her.
"Rosalie asked if you were going to the swim afterwards." Bayon eyed him curiously. "She's invited the two new apprentices. One of the females is a redhead, both in and out of shift." He grinned broadly. "What do you say? I'd be happy to share."
Washing the blood from their skin in the bayou was always done after a hunt, but playing with females held absolutely no interest for him. He started to pace back and forth over the cold ground. "I'm going to my Julia."
"Your Julia?" Bayon repeated. "Since when does she belong to you?"
"I've marked her. She's mine, my family now."
Bayon didn't say anything at first. Parish's second-in-command was undeniably one of the top Hunters in the Faction, but to him females were for play and pleasure, and commitment was to be avoided. Which made his thoughtful, almost gentle gaze pretty damned significant.
"It's good to see," Bayon said finally, as the dawn broke around them and Hunters stalked about in the open field near the shore of the bayou. "You know Keira and I never saw eye to eye-"
"You hated her, and she hated you," Parish said with a quick grin.
A grin Bayon picked up and held. "Yeah, well. She was a hardass, unforgiving, forgot she was a female most of the time, and probably the best goddamn Hunter I've ever witnessed. No offense."
"But when she..." Bayon stared at the ground, shook his head. "I thought you died that day too, brother."
"Yeah," Parish uttered, his own gaze running the landscape. "Well, maybe I did." Until her. Julia.
He needed her. He needed her here. Had she gotten his note? His gift?
Christ, he could still taste her. All he could think about was being inside her.
Then he caught sight of Ashe and Raphael, walking through the trees. His heart pounded in his chest. Right beside them was Julia. Beautiful, desirable, fearful Julia. For a moment it was as if time stood still. He stared at her over the expanse of vegetation, willing her to look at him, and when she did, when her eyes met and held his, he released the breath inside his lungs.
When Ashe and Raphael stopped to speak with a group of Suits, Julia continued forward. Her face split into a wide grin as she jumped up on a rock and raised something above her head. It took Parish a moment to understand what it was. White and thin. Paper.
The one he'd taped to her headboard just a few hours ago. And there was something written over his words in big, bold red marker. His heart started to pump loudly, heavily in his chest. Was she refusing him? Was she returning to the outside world with her cat, and the heart he'd claimed last night? He narrowed his eyes to read:
CAN WE BUILD OUR HOUSE NEAR THE BAYOU POOL?
Parish would never be able to explain the overwhelming relief and intensity of feeling that surged through him in that moment, but his puma did. Even in his male form, the cat could not be reigned in. It broke from Parish's throat, roaring loudly and clearly and happily into the early morning air as its master ran at her. Mine, it screamed. Mine, Parish agreed as he jumped upon the rock beside her and pulled her into his arms.
"Welcome home, Doc."
"Thank you." She nipped at his lower lip and grinned. "For everything. Fangs, the magic, for being you. I feel so..."
Her eyes filled with tears, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. "Yes."
Parish growled and nuzzled her neck and felt as if his heart would explode from wanting. He had love and family, and he would never allow anything or anyone to take it from him again.
"Where's my gorgeous puma?" she asked, drawing back, her blue eyes bright.
He growled again, soft and sensual. "I got your puma right here, Doc." He stepped back, grinned, and in a plume of silver mist, he shifted. He roared into the cool, dawn air, then turned on the rock and called out to everyone present, "I've caught the prey of a lifetime, Pantera, but she has come to see a hunt, and we will give it to her!"
* * *
Silver mist coated the air around them as they floated down the bayou with the rest of the Pantera spectators. Along with Ashe and Raphael, Julia and two other Pantera, one female and one male, sat within the low-bottomed boat, following the pack of puma Hunters as they raced down river. The strange, six-foot long skiff had no motor, but it was definitely moving through the water as if it did.
Animal or magic? Julia wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"It's the best way to watch the hunt," Raphael remarked, pointing to the gold and black cats breaking through the trees, stopping momentarily, nostrils flaring, mouths open, trying to catch a scent before taking off once again.
Parish's roar after he'd read her note still echoed through Julia's mind and body. She'd hoped he'd have that kind of reaction, and she couldn't wait to curl up against him later and show him just how happy he made her, and how deeply touched she felt about Fangs.
A loud, feral squeal tore through the mist then, and ripped Julia from her thoughts. What was it? she wondered. The prey they sought? Or an injury to one of the Hunters, perhaps?
She felt equal pangs of curiosity and horror, but along with everyone else on the boat, she lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes on the bank. At first she saw nothing but green, stands of trees and moving fur. She heard growling, followed by another squeal, then a cut off feral scream.
She turned to Raphael, so did Ashe.
"That was quick. Parish is fired up." Raphael grinned at his woman. "My cub will have bacon tonight."
Ashe turned slightly pale. "Oh, jeez. Not a visual that's working for me right now, my love."
"Sorry, ma chere. I promise, no more details-"
"Look!" cried the female beside Julia. "They're coming."
"Maybe you want to keep your eyes closed, my love," Raphael said gently as the boat slowed, then stopped.
Turning from Ashe, Julia scrambled to her knees. Her gaze shot to the bank. She combed the water's edge until- There. She watched as the group emerged from behind a stand of cypress. Julia's heart jumped into her throat and she grinned. Out in front strode Parish's slate gray puma. Broad and fearsome, he searched each boat with his golden gaze. When he spotted her, his cat grinned with pride, blood covering its muzzle and teeth.
Julia beamed, waved at him. She'd never felt so proud, so possessive. That was her puma. The Hunter, the protector.
But her giddiness came to an abrupt halt when the boat jerked violently and she was tossed backwards onto the metal floor. Pain slammed into her elbow, and she saw the male Pantera passenger fall into the water, followed by something else. Her vision blurred and she felt slightly nauseous. All she could think was that they'd hit something, a rock or a tree. The wind was knocked from her lungs, and as she tried to capture breath, she heard Parish's roar ringing in her ears, then Raphael's cry.
Cry? Why was he crying?
She tried to push herself into a sitting position. Her elbow stung and stars swam before her eyes, but at least air was coming in and going out. She heard Raphael again. Then a female Pantera. They were screaming, roaring. But who were they screaming-
Oh, god...they were screaming for Ashe.
The boat rocked and jerked, and Julia heard a loud splash to her right, then water hit her face. She gasped as sound rushed her from all sides. Everyone was screaming, calling out for Ashe.
"The bastard took her over the side with him!" someone yelled.
"Who was it?" said another. "What Faction?"
"I think he's Nurturer."
Julia blinked several times, trying like hell to get her bearings. What the hell was happening? Her vision cleared just as Raphael roared from somewhere in the water, "He's swimming toward the other bank! We're close to the border! Go! Fuck! Go after him. I have Ashe."
Fully alert now, her heart slamming against her ribs, Julia scooted over to the edge of the boat. The water and the bank were complete chaos. Pantera were everywhere. She scanned the water for Raphael and Ashe. When she spotted them, her heart stopped. Raphael was swimming madly toward shore, Ashe tucked against him on her back. Julia could see the woman's face clearly in the burgeoning light of day. She looked cold and pale and quiet.
Without thinking, Julia dove into the water and swam hell-bent for shore. Once there, she scrambled to her feet and ran, neither noticing her aching lungs or how dripping wet and cold she was. She needed to get to Ashe, to her patient.
Pantera crowded around Raphael and his mate, but Julia pushed her way through. She slid to her knees beside Ashe, put her face near the woman's mouth and assessed her breathing.
Julia glanced up.
It was Raphael. He stared at Julia, horror-struck, terrified beyond measure. "The baby."
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