If he thought the shadows of night would keep him from Malia’s knowing, he was sorely mistaken.
Winding her way easily between the twisted gum trees, she steadily closed the distance between them. Her paws barely made a sound on the leaf litter, the ground damp from the short bout of rain earlier that evening. She kept downwind of him, but zig zagged back and forth reading his scents. He was travelling in his human form. She could smell the leather of his jacket and the bees wax waterproofer on his boots.
Strange. He could travel so much faster in his other form, though with a lot less stealth.
The mournful cry of a powerful owl cut through the other sounds of the night, and Malia glanced up, seeking a glimpse of the sky predator. A flash of speckled wings beyond the tree canopy and then the owl had moved on to less crowded pastures. Malia smiled, flashing her sharp canines. Wise decision—tonight she wasn’t in the mood to share her hunting ground with anyone.
And she was hunting something much larger than a possum and much more dangerous.
She quickly restored her attention to her prey. He’d turned around and was staring straight into the trees directly to where she was hiding, though it was impossible for him to actually see her, protected by shadows as she was.
A worthy opponent, indeed.
She remained perfectly still, her head and tail low to the ground, waiting to see what he would do next.
“Ah, little dingo.” Jakov released the reluctant greeting on a sigh. His voice vibrated through her body as it always did, sparking within her a bone-deep need. He was her mate, her other half. Her dingo knew him from all others, as it had done the first time they’d met six years ago. If only he would realise this too, the stubborn bastard.
Malia stepped free of the trees and into the small clearing. She raised her snout to the moonlight, taking just a heartbeat to enjoy the feel of it caressing her fur before shifting. With a gentle tingling, power swept through her body. Her arms and legs lengthened, her hearing faded, and as easily as breathing she slipped back into her human form.
Her tank top and shorty shorts didn’t fare so well. If Malia hadn’t been so afraid she’d miss her window of opportunity, she’d have taken the few extra seconds needed to strip bare and save her favourite PJs from the destruction of the change. It wasn’t like she was worried about modesty. For shifters nakedness was a daily occurrence and nothing to feel embarrassed about.
Tucking the shredded ends of her top into the waistband of her shorts to keep it all out of her way, she looked her destined mate up and down, searching for signs of change. It had been nearly four months since she’d seen him last. His travels over country didn’t bring him through Shadow Chaser territory often.
The stubble speckling his cheeks and chin and the shadows under his eyes confirmed her suspicion that he hadn’t been looking after himself properly again. At least the claw scars cutting down the right side of his face had faded a little more, though they’d never completely disappear even with his accelerated healing.
While Malia had her fair share of scars, none came close to the brutality of what someone had inflicted on Jakov’s face. He was lucky not to have lost sight in one eye. But Malia knew better than to offer pity or platitudes. Instead, her dingo luxuriated in every second that passed and Jakov didn’t break eye contact. He was as dominant as she—one of the few shifters she’d ever met besides her own alpha, Luca, who could hold her gaze without flinching.
Finally, she let her eyes skim over his jeans and leather jacket. Despite the air still warm with the last of summer, only the skin of his hands and face remained uncovered.
Her dingo bristled at the implication. “Did you think wearing so many layers would muffle your scent from me?”
“You have to give a man points for trying.” The lingering remains of his Eastern European accent touched his words.
He was the only non-dingo shifter predator who had Luca’s permission to cross pack territory. And it was purely because wasn’t part of any pack of his own. He was a loner; it was in his nature to roam.
“No points.” She shook her head, entirely unimpressed. “In fact, you should get minus points.”
“Minus points?” Despite his light words, tension held his shoulders in a firm grasp. “So, how did you find me so quickly?”
She waved an arm in the general direction of the surrounding trees. “I just finished upgrading our sensor system. Now nothing larger than a micro bat can pass through without us knowing.” As soon as Luca had realised Malia had a head for electronics, he’d encouraged her to further her education in that direction. After three years hard study through a correspondence program with one of Australia’s major universities, not only had she graduated top of her class; she’d upgraded all of the pack’s security systems.
Most of the time they only used the system to monitor their conservation efforts and to ensure other shifter predatory packs stayed clear of their land, but it hadn’t taken Malia long to realise the system had a rather pleasing secondary use—tracking the movements of a six-foot something Serbian was considerably easier than the movements of the tiny endangered pygmy possum.
The alarm on her tablet had started beeping the moment he’d stepped foot on pack territory.
He had no idea what she had install for him this night, and she’d had months to plan.
“Have you hidden anything else out here since the last time I passed through that I should know about?” he grumbled. “Cameras? Drones? An entire football stadium?”
She laughed. “Of course cameras. In fact, if you move”—she gave the clearing a calculating glance—“two and a half feet to your left, you’ll be front and centre.” She flashed him a grin. “And everything that’s recorded out here is saved straight to my hard drive.”
He blinked and a hint of colour touched his cheeks.
She revelled in the rush of exhilaration that flooded her body. Who knew Jakov could blush!
He ran a hand through his hair, and her gaze was instantly drawn to the muscles of his arm, the shape of them visible even through the thick leather of his jacket, and to his locks of dark hair tucked back over his ears. Her whole arm tingled with the almost overwhelming urge to run her own fingers through his hair. She was sure it would be soft, just as his fur would be—if he would ever let her touch him when in his other form.
She stepped forward.
He took a very deliberate step back, keeping the arms’ length of space between them.
She didn’t hold back her dingo’s growl of frustration. Brown bears had a seriously infuriating habit of being much too stubborn for their own good—and sometimes she thought her soon-to-be mate must be the most stubborn of them all. Nothing but sheer bloody mindedness could possibly explain how he’d managed to deny the connection between them when, even if he were experiencing half of what she was currently feeling, it could only be described as all-consuming.
“Afraid?” She raised an eyebrow and stalked forward another step, daring him to move away again, challenging him to break eye contact. But of course he didn’t. He couldn’t now she’d said the one thing that pushed every dominant male across the line from vaguely civilised to in-your-face there’s-no-way-in-hell-I’m-backing-down-ever-again. Right where she wanted him.
“Don’t do this, Malia,” he warned, and the words seemed to rumble up his chest like thunder.
“Are you saying no?” Because if he was, she’d step down immediately. She’d never try to take what wasn’t freely given—even if he was destined to be her mate and even though she could hear his heart thumping just as loudly and quickly as her own.
In answer, he stepped forward, his feet dragging in the still-damp earth, kicking up the distinct scent of eucalyptus. It was as though the two of them were connected by invisible gossamer threads and the threads were slowly but surely tightening. There was barely a foot between them now.
He wanted her, for all that he’d spent the last six years denying it.
She was confident enough in herself—and dominant enough—not to believe otherwise.
“This is a really bad idea,” he began. “I’ve told you before. The age difference—”
She raised a hand, cutting him off. “I’m twelve years older than you. You’re still in school. You’re younger than my baby sister,” she mimicked. “Come on, Jakov, I’ve heard it all before a million times.” Six years he’d been preaching all the reasons why they should never be together. But in all that time he’d been suppressing the reasons why they would be happy, and it was exactly those reasons she planned to remind him of tonight. “And that’s not why I’m here,” she said, the lie coming easily.
The crease crinkling his perfect brow showed his surprise. Malia resisted the urge to smile in satisfaction.
“Then what do you want?” he asked with gruff annoyance that would have had anyone with less determination than a dingo on the hunt retreating immediately.
You! I want you.
But all she said was: “I want you to teach me how to kiss.”
* * *
Blood rushed south.
“You… what?” Yes, his bear roared. Mine. Always mine.
Jakov forced himself to remain perfectly still. Inside him, a war raged. Malia’s scent had changed since he’d last seen her all those months ago. He’d noticed it long before she’d stepped into the moonlit clearing. She had finally—painstakingly slowly!—reached her majority, and now undertones of feminine arousal had his bear so desperate to reach her it was like he was trying to claw his way out of Jakov’s very chest. Or maybe that was simply Jakov’s racing heart, beating a million kilometres an hour.
Six years of abstinence was a wicked devil to contend with.
His jeans were suddenly much too tight, his leather jacket much too constricting. Why the hell was he wearing clothes? More importantly, why was Malia? He wanted to slice his claws through the remains of her PJs. He wanted to toss her to the ground, kiss and nip every inch of her skin until she was begging him for release, and then he wanted to ravish her senseless.
“I’ll be twenty next month, and I’ve never even been kissed.” She spoke so matter-of-factly. There was even a hint of a smile playing with her lips. But the unspoken words were as clear as the spoken ones. She’d never been kissed because she’d never let anyone kiss her. He was sure men—boys, he corrected with an internal snort of contempt—had tried. How could they not? She was magnificent to behold. Though small in stature, there was a quiet confidence to everything she did—the way she walked and talked, the way she watched him with steady contemplation as though they had all the time in the world.
Hell, when he’d first negotiated safe passage over Shadow Chaser land with the alpha, Luca Shadow, Malia had walked straight up to him and, before the rest of her entire pack, had announced he was to be her forever mate. Jakov had never made a tactical retreat from anywhere so fast before or since.
She’d been just a juvenile back then, grass strains on her jeans and a school backpack slung over one shoulder. The top of her head had hardly been level with his shoulder—still wasn’t—and his ripped-up face had still been raw, the claw marks where his mother had slashed him still bloodied and swollen. But none of that had deterred her in the slightest.
Malia was a dominant female and unapologetically powerful—an alpha in the making. Her dingo would never accept a submissive partner. Nor would she ever let a potential mate dominate her.
It was a fine line to walk. Perhaps the finest of them all.
And it was a line Jakov didn’t trust his bear not to cross.
Claws pierced his palm as he clenched his hands.
It had been the same story with his parents, neither willing to relinquish control to the other even for a second. They’d constantly been at each other’s throats—figuratively and literally. Until Jakov, in one moment of desperation, had stepped between them. It had been then his mother had clawed his face, and she’d hardly even noticed so lost to the rage of her animal had she been. His parent’s relationship had destroyed the caring people they’d once been.
Jakov had left the sleuth that night and had roamed as a loner ever since.
With a laboured breath, he contracted his claws. “There are other dominants,” he said through gritted teeth, willing himself not to take another breath. Standing this close to Malia without touching her was giving a whole new definition to the saying ‘blue balls’.
Rolling her eyes, she said: “Everyone in my pack is either related to me, already mated or too—” She shrugged. “I can’t go searching elsewhere, not while my new security system is still in the beta test. I have to be near in case something glitches. It’s—”
She continued on, but Jakov could barely keep her words straight in his brain. As soon as he’d spoken, red-hot anger had flooded his veins at the very thought of Malia taking another to her bed. His sight sharpened; his pupils had gone full bear.
Malia suddenly cocked her head to the left, listening to something beyond their clearing, and Jakov cursed himself for being so utterly engrossed he’d missed the warning of a potential threat.
His bear was focused on one thing and one thing alone.
A wild dingo slunk out from behind the thick trunk of a gum tree. His head was bowed towards the ground, his tail near his back legs—all signs he was on the hunt—lured here by Malia’s scent. The animal’s gazed jumped between Jakov and Malia, the calculating glint clear in his glowing eyes. Deciding either Jakov posed no risk or Malia was a prize worthy of the danger, he padded forward and rubbed his muzzle against her bare legs, trying to scent her as his own.
Malia chuckled, both delighted and accustomed to such attention. While her wild counterparts weren’t part of the Shadow Chaser pack, clearly neither considered the other a threat. In fact, this young male obviously wanted to be more than friends, evidently confused as to why Malia smelt equally human as dingo.
A misplaced juvenile crush, Jakov’s reassured his bear.
But his bear was in no mood to listen, and a warning growl rumbled through his chest. Mine.
With a whine and a reproachful look, the wild dingo quickly retreated, unable to resist the command in Jakov’s warning.
“Now you’ve scared away your competition,” Malia said with a laugh, her smile crinkling the corners of her bewitching gold-brown eyes, “are you going to teach me to kiss or not?”
Oh, he was in so much trouble. The zipper on his jeans bit painfully at his stiff cock.
“Okay.” She shrugged lightly, not looking surprised in the slightest—or disappointed, his pride quipped. “I guess I’ll have to follow your advice after all and find a man who’s up to the task. I don’t want to be the only twenty-year-old who’s—”
Mine! Man and bear acted instinctively. Closing the distance between them, he wrapped his arms about Malia’s waist and kissed her.
* * *
Malia’s feet left the ground, her breasts and pelvis pressed flush against the wall of muscle that was Jakov’s chest. His lips claimed hers, his tongue nudging at the seam of her mouth, daring her to open. A shiver raced through her body, sending need pulsing between her thighs. She tangled her fingers in his hair, tugging him impossibly closer, refusing to give an inch.
“Open your mouth,” he demanded, barely breaking the kiss that had all the tiny hairs on her body quivering in anticipation.
“Make me.” She grinned close-lipped against his mouth, her dingo basking in the thrill of the game.
“Never. Underestimate. A. Horny. Bear.” He grunted each word between tempting nips and licks. And then he bit her bottom lip with sharp teeth. The heady feeling of pleasure and a little pain had Malia gasping.
Pressing his advantage, Jakov captured the tip of her tongue and sucked. Lights practically flashed before her eyes.
Hells bells, the man knew what he was doing.
She wrapped her legs around his hips and squirmed against his chest, seeking the friction she so desperately needed.
He pulled back, devouring her with eyes of liquid brown. “Focus on the kissing,” he remonstrated, his hair rumpled from her desperate caresses, looking less and less like his usual uptight self by the second.
Her dingo preened.
“Yes, sir!” She gave a terse nod, mimicking a soldier saluting their superior and was rewarded with another desperate, grasping, clawing, heart-racing, toe-curling kiss.
This time she kept her eyes opened, determined to burn the memories onto her brain.
The bite of his unshaven cheek against her lips.
The feel of his hands stroking her back.
The flutter of his eyelashes on his cheek.
There was no way she was going to let herself forget a second of their first time together. Maybe she could nudge them both to the left two and a half feet. Then she’d have high-definition memories. Next time. And there would most certainly be a next time.
My mate. Her dingo wanted to lick him all over. She wanted their bodies so closely entwined their scents mingled.
Yet the stubborn bastard was still holding back. She could feel his hesitation in the tension building in his shoulders.
Six years a loner, he was a man half starved for touch and affection. Whoever had slashed his face, had also slashed his trust—his trust in other people, maybe; his trust in himself, most definitely. His scars glowed white in the moonlight.
Grasping his shoulders as leverage, she slid her body down his an inch or two until the hard ridge beneath his jeans was pressed against the centre seam of her torn shorty shorts and rocked back and forth. A gasp of surprise and Jakov’s knees gave way. They sunk onto the still-damp earth, Malia clinging to her bear like she was a koala up a tree. The remaining shreds of her PJs practically disintegrated, and everywhere his hands touched, her skin tingled and her muscles melted like butter.
She tugged impatiently at his leather jacket. “Off,” she demanded. Skin for skin.
When he didn’t oblige fast enough, she fisted her hands in his lapels and yanked the jacket off his shoulders. It caught at his elbows, pinning his arms to his sides. Seizing her opportunity, Malia shredded the front of his grey t-shirt with her claws, exposing his gloriously ridged chest to the light of the moon. She wanted to throw back her head and howl to the moon.
Using sheer strength, Jakov split his jacket down the back and shook his arms free. With a challenging growl, he used his superior size to crowd Malia backwards until she was lying on her back. Bowing his head, he circled one nipple with his tongue. Pleasure seared through her body, and Malia arched her back, pressing her breast against his oh-so skilful mouth.
“Jakov,” his name nothing more than a moan.
Jakov tore off his jeans, letting his erection spring free. It pointed unashamedly towards his stomach. Malia reached out, grasping his flesh in her greedy hand, both woman and dingo delighting in the heat that seemed to sear her palm.
She couldn’t wait any longer. “Now.”
“Now, what?” There was a feral glint in his eyes and a muscle twitched in his jaw. His control was hung by a thread. “Say it.”
Oh, to hell with it! “Fuck me now,” she begged. If that’s what he needed, then she would give it and gladly—just tonight, just this once.
And then Jakov was thrusting into her core, holding nothing back. Intense pleasure like she’d never experienced before raced along her nerve endings, her vision blurred and suddenly all she could see and hear and feel was Jakov. Driven by an insatiable need, her body rose up to meet his powerful thrusts. Together they were chasing something glorious, something as yet unknown.
She raised her head and nipped at his pectoral muscle, marking him as her own, and, with a roar that was more bear than man, Jakov crested the mountain. He stilled, his face twisted in the grip of uncontrollable release, giving her a great gift—a moment of vulnerability.
A second later, she followed him over the edge.
* * *
A sharp elbow to the side of his ribs woke him. Early morning sunlight was filtering in through the canopy overhead, blanketing their clearing in warmth. Jakov tightened his one-armed hold of Malia, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
She flashed him one of her toothy grins, lifting her arms over her head in a full-body stretch, her lithe form pressed against his side.
His cock was already standing to attention, willing and eager for round three… or was it round four? After their initial frenzied mating, Jakov had made sure to kiss and lick every inch of her body, giving Malia the care and attention she deserved.
“You’d better put your jeans back on if you don’t want to meet Luca butt naked,” she said, sitting up. Her small breasts bounced.
“My jeans?” He reached up to run a finger down her smooth cheek and along her lips. She nipped at him playfully. “Wait.” He sat up. “Luca’s coming here?”
“He’s meeting us at daybreak and the sun’s up already. We slept in.” Another grin. They had done very little sleeping.
She tossed Jakov his jeans and he quickly pulled them on, hopping from foot to foot. They were a little worse for wear but at least the fly still worked. His leather jacket was beyond salvation and his boots were goodness only knew.
Extending his awareness, he scanned the trees surrounding the clearing. Sure enough, he could hear several people heading their way. They were coming from the direction of pack headquarters, a cluster of houses at the centre of Shadow Chaser territory.
The expression on Malia’s face hinted at mischief. He opened his mouth to demand she tell him exactly what was going on, but instead his bear took issue with her nakedness. “You too.” And he pressed his t-shirt into her hands. The front was in strips after last night, but the back was in relatively good shape.
Rolling her eyes, she pulled it on back-to-front, the tag tickling the base of her throat. Just in time too.
Luca stepped into the clearing. Wearing all black, he could have blended easily into the shadows if not for his desert-red hair. He was a little taller than Malia, but still shorter than Jakov, and lean rather than bulky with muscles. Not that Jakob would ever mistake the other man’s smaller stature as weakness. Few dominant predator shifters were born with the qualities of an alpha and even fewer managed to hold onto a pack for more than a couple of years.
Luca had been alpha of Shadow Chaser for nearly fourteen years, and he steered his pack with a steady hand, caring not only for his fellow dingos but for all animals living within the border of his territory. He had at least two degrees in environmental science and regularly received government grant money for his conservation projects.
Behind Luca stood two pre-teen girls. They both shared their father’s red locks, but unlike him, neither could meet Jakov’s gaze.
Jakov paused. To bring pups—and two gentle submissives by the looks of it—to meet with a non-pack predator was either a show of extreme power or a very rare sign of trust. Judging by the smile on Luca’s face, it was the latter.
Jakov stepped forward to shake the other man’s hand, meeting his eyes for a moment before respectfully looking away. Jakov might be a dominant, and a strong dominant at that, but he wasn’t an alpha, nor did he aspire to alpha status. He was more fighter than leader.
Malia stepped forward, accepting a brief embrace from her alpha. She winked at the two girls, who giggled and looked away, before sidling up to Jakov. He could no more reject her now than he could cut out his own heart. He slipped an arm around her waist, his hand on her bare arse. Luckily the back of his shirt was so long on Malia it came halfway down her thighs.
He felt rather than heard the warning growl of her dingo in response to his show of possessiveness, but she didn’t step away. Rather, she leant against him, his shoulder once more her pillow.
His heart melted. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his mate. He’d well and truly been tamed, and his bear was surprisingly pleased. In fact, his bear wanted the three intruders to leave so he could finish the job of shredding his t-shirt and repeat the job of licking her all over.
“Did you know we had bets on how long it would take Malia to change your mind,” said Luca, his tone light. “What were the odds again?” he asked his girls with a slight frown.
“Two to one she’d win him over before she turned twenty-one,” said the elder of the two with another giggle. Olivia he thought her name might be.
“Which means my mate owes me twenty bucks.” The alpha motioned for Malia and Jakov to walk with him. “If we hurry, there’ll still be some breakfast left. Though knowing my three boys, every minute we linger the odds grow drastically smaller.” He turned and started back the way he’d come, his daughters darting ahead. “When they said teenage boys will eat you out of house and home, they obviously hadn’t met my sons yet.” He gave a dramatic sigh, his love for his family evident in every teasing word he spoke.
Malia moved to follow, but Jakov’s heart was racing. He stared down at his small mate, his brows furrowed in a silent question.
She stood up on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. “You might have spent the last few years by yourself, but you’ve been part of our pack from the first minute I set my sights on you. Luca’s just been waiting for the right moment to welcome you.”
Jakov looked back over to Luca, but the alpha and his daughters hadn’t waited for them. Apparently breakfast in the Shadow household was serious business.
“Please,” Malia said, tugging lightly on his hand. “Luca’s training me to be the pack’s next alpha. He wants to retire in a couple of years, and I need you on my team.”
“I’m not…” He tried again. “I don’t want to hurt—”
As though knowing what he was struggling to say, his mate, the ever-resourceful Malia Chase, linked her fingers at the back of his neck and pulled him down for a breathless kiss.
“I’m more than capable of taking care of myself,” she murmured against his lips. “And I’m certainly more than capable of taking care of your bear.” And then she said the one thing no lonely bear could ever resist: “Come on, sweetheart, let’s go home.”