The newcomer was crouched at the edge of a stream, looking vulnerable. From this distance Ber, Beast Master of the Puma clan, couldn’t tell what, if any, weapons the human was carrying. Moving like the cat his clan was named for, he slipped quickly and silently through the forest. Came closer.
It was difficult to tell how tall this person was, but Ber guessed the stranger was smaller than him. But then, not many men matched his height. The object of his search had hair longer than his. Silver in color, it was caught with something at the nape so the strands lay over the tanned, slender back. Both the stranger’s physique and his heightened awareness of himself as a man made him suspect he was looking at a woman. Why would any of the other clans who lived near Puma Mountain send a female up here alone?
She might have been sent as a distraction. But for what purpose? The great mountain that fed and housed the Puma clan was considered worthless to the other clans. They preferred the valleys, with their rich soils and abundant vegetation as well as deer and other game.
Those clans feared the Pumas because none of them was as skilled in fighting. They did whatever they could not to incur the Pumas’ wrath.
Done arguing with himself as to why he shouldn’t be looking at a female, Ber crept closer. Becoming one with his surroundings fed Ber’s sense of belonging. Because his role within the clan required him to spend his days staying as close as possible to the pumas, he often felt set apart from the others. But at moments like this, he didn’t care. The forest had become his father, the wind his mother. And right now, Father and Mother were taking him to the intruder.
He wore leather sandals and a loincloth of soft, black-dyed leather. A sheath attached to his waistband held the knife he was never without. Otherwise, he was naked and unarmed. His muscles were loose and ready.
He expected his prey to abandon the creek and return to the shelter of the trees. Instead, the figure remained crouched and still, his or her attention fixed on the slowly moving water.
Intrigued, he slipped closer. With each step, the predator side of his nature gained strength. The newcomer would soon belong to him, become his prize. The trees provided the shelter he needed now, but there was a good thirty feet of open land along the creek’s edge, which meant he’d soon charge. If he decided to attack.
He’d been named Beast Master in part because his thoughts and emotions were as much predator as human, and today he was hunting. Stalking, because it gave him pleasure to do so.
“Attack. Kill. Feed.”
Ber was accustomed to hearing the Beast’s voice inside him. Being commanded this way was nothing new. In truth, he loved the way strength poured through him with the silent order. When that happened, he hunted, not as a man but as a puma would. His leg muscles became powerful, capable of reaching a speed the man Ber couldn’t match. He’d race after his prey, usually a deer, overtake it, and leap onto its back. His greater weight would bring the deer to its knees, and his arms, burning with power, would snap the slender neck. At times like that, he had no need for the weapons his fellow hunters carried. Although he usually hunted alone, his clansmen knew what he was capable of. Which was, in part, why they granted him space.
A slender neck?
Sweet but dangerous softness lay beneath the slim form in front of him.
Now that less than a hundred feet separated them, he had no doubt he was looking at a female. Her neck, although partly hidden by her sleek hair, was long, soft, and vulnerable, which allowed him to shake off the ridiculous thought that she could endanger him in any way. He was kin to the Beast! Invincible.
A growl rolled up in his throat. Once he’d captured his prey, he might scream as a puma does. Maybe he wouldn’t have to kill her. The sound alone might stop the intruder’s heart.
The woman stood. Something about how she held herself told him she was weary. But concentrating on her and the aura she exuded was difficult when her bare limbs and rounded hips called to him. Clawed at him.
She wore a single garment held in place by a piece of whisper-thin leather over her left shoulder. The dress covered her breasts and went under her right arm, hugging her generous breasts and leaving her right shoulder naked. The garment ended halfway down her thighs. Like him, she carried a knife. In addition, a pouch was also attached to the band around her small waist.
At the moment she was positioned so her right side was closest to him. Although the muscles in her thighs were nothing compared to his, they looked muscled, putting him in mind of a deer.
Maybe she was a member of the Deer clan?
“It doesn’t matter.”
Instead of arguing with the Beast that the newcomer’s roots were, indeed, important, Ber struggled to stop thinking of her as an intruder. Whatever clan she belonged to, she didn’t belong here. But she’d unwisely ventured onto his turf and now she was his, or she would be as soon as he’d captured her.
“Capture? No, kill!”
“I will not,”
he silently told the Beast. “Human doesn’t eat human.”
“Then what will you use her for?”
He only had to acknowledge the restlessness storming through him to find the answer. Sex. Fucking. Lowering her to the ground and parting her legs so he could dive into that soft, warm, mysterious place. Leaving thought behind while becoming all male, growling in fierce, frightening hunger only to find mindless freedom in the act of emptying himself in her.
Because explaining what primitive desire felt like for him might not matter to the Beast, Ber shook off the Beast’s insistent commands and his question. Just the same, the Beast’s essence remained with him. They shared something he’d never tried to explain to anyone in the clan—a restless, nameless search. That, more than anything else, united them.
Although his hand lingered near his knife, Ber had no need to feel its weight. When he sent a message to his thighs and calves, they immediately responded. Within two steps, he was running at full speed. His blood sang in his veins, and his lungs drew in summer-hot air. Running like this was like flying must be, effortless and spirit given. Sometimes he wished he could run forever, but right now, his attention remained fixed on his prey.
Perhaps she’d sensed him before he began his charge because she was now racing away from him. She moved in a graceless, zigzag pattern that reminded him of a frightened deer’s flight. Keeping pace with her required him to concentrate on what he was doing and not totally on her. Still, his cock tightened at the sight of her naked legs and pumping arms.
They hadn’t traveled far before he concluded he was indeed faster than her. But he felt no need to bring her down. Not yet. She was already his, and yet she wasn’t. A prize just out of reach, victory deliberately delayed.
Instead of screaming, she remained silent, something else she had in common with deer. He’d heard a fawn’s sad bleating when it was separated from its mother as well as the faint whistling a dying deer made and didn’t want to hear either of those sounds from her.
Did she enjoy the competition? With her runner’s legs and slender body, she was built for movement. Even if she likened him to a predator, perhaps she relished these moments when the outcome remained in doubt. She could delude herself into believing she had a chance, tell herself that if she put out a little more effort, she’d escape. Or perhaps she’d studied his form and wanted it. Was even now imagining the press of his cock against her magical channel.
Then, looking tense, she glanced over her shoulder and he concluded she didn’t want any of this to be happening.
But he did! With every cell of his being, he embraced this moment and the potential of those to come.
And when he sent the challenge to his legs and they responded, he embraced that as well.
He was ten feet behind her, five, four. Her bare feet slapped against the ground, and her harsh breathing meshed with his. She no longer smelled like spring as she had before. Rather, she carried the intoxicating scents of determination and fear.
And sex. She was a sexual being, as was he.
He leaped at her and wrapped his arms around her middle, his greater weight pushing her to the ground. Just before they landed, he twisted so his side and not her belly and breasts took the brunt of their fall. Just the same, his weight buried her, and the breath whooshed out of her. She went limp.
Then he felt her muscles returning to life. She reached for her knife, compelling him to force her onto her belly, grab a slim wrist, and yank her arm behind her.
“No!” she screamed.
Careful not to injure her, he bent her arm so it pressed against her spine. Despite her struggles, he had no trouble keeping her against the ground. His longer and heavier legs pinned hers, claimed them.
“No!” she repeated.
To his surprise, she fell silent. His cock, caught between them, rested against her heated buttocks, and he arched his spine, increasing the pressure. The Beast ruled him as he concentrated on the sensations pouring through him. Everything about the female’s body spoke to his.
Other clans captured each other. Sometimes the captives became slaves; the females, sex slaves. Because of the severe lack of puma females, Puma warriors had discussed doing the same. But Ashlyn, the ruler who had led the Pumas for as long as Ber had been alive, had forbidden that. Ashlyn had recently suffered an attack of some kind that had rendered her incapable of leadership, but as long as she remained alive, no warrior would challenge the most senior Puma woman. Or more to the point, no Puma had captured an enemy female for a carnal purpose. Until now.
His possession? His to do what he wanted with?
“Fuck her. Put your mark upon her.”
Lifting his head, he studied what he could see of his captive. Her hair was off to the side, and a bare shoulder blade stood out against flawless skin. Her skirt had ridden up so that the bottom of her buttocks were exposed. Between her tanned flesh and the soft mounds under him, he was acutely aware of her as a woman and his need for one.
“Don’t! By the spirits, don’t!” she insisted.
“Rape me. I’ll kill you if you try.”
He wanted to do just that. But he’d grown up listening to Ashlyn the Ruler’s wisdom and understood with every ounce of his being that a Puma warrior didn’t rape. Men from other clans might give in to their animal natures, but in this one thing, Pumas were superior.
His head pounded, though, from the debate he warred between wanting to turn this creature into his possession and remaining true to his upbringing. His body was tightly strung, every tendon taut, the male animal in him fighting for domination. The Beast was with him, wanting the same thing. If he released her arm, she’d undoubtedly struggle even more. Unless he found a way to immobilize her, she might injure herself.
“Don’t fight,” he commanded. “You can’t overpower me.”
“No! Let me go!”
An order from someone who couldn’t get off the ground took him aback. Although she was probably driven by terror, he admired her courage. Her voice was settled, that of a woman and not a girl.
How did he feel about the possibility that his presence terrified her? The part of him the Beast had claimed reveled in the sense of power, while the rest of him remained conflicted. He was a hunter and a fighter. He knew how to do those things.
His control of his man-nature was something else—tenuous, influenced by the Beast’s needs.