Cavanaugh was about to give up and serve the female still frantically trying to get his attention when the hooded trekker moved closer. His gaze zeroed in on them over the heads of the patrons lining the busy bar.
It was a woman. Average height. A little too thin even with the thick coat. She stumbled into a group of five male demons near the edge of the dance floor off to his left and waved her small hands around, flashing scars that circled her wrists.
When one of the burly demon males lightly pushed her shoulder, barely touching her, she staggered back and almost fell but recovered herself. What was wrong with her?
Was she a homeless person, on drugs, or maybe drunk?
She was unsteady on her feet as she backed away from the demons, heading in Cavanaugh’s direction, towards one group of the thick black columns that rose up on either side of the dance floor to support the high ceiling of the club. The demons followed her, exchanging glances and wicked smiles that made Cavanaugh wonder what the female looked like. Her hood obscured her face, hiding it from him, but he guessed she was pretty because the demons looked as if they wanted to party with her.
She waved her hands again as she moved directly in front of Cavanaugh, clearly trying to deter the males, and he sensed the fatigue rolling off her. Not drunk or on drugs. She had stumbled because she was weak.
His dark grey eyes began to widen.
He could sense her fatigue?
Her scent hit him hard, knocking him back a step, and he had to grab the edge of the black bar top in front of him to steady himself. He stared at her, unable to take his eyes off her, his head and heart reeling.
It couldn’t be.
The demons tossed her black scowls when she flashed them something. A small square of paper.
The tallest of the group pointed towards the bar.
Cavanaugh’s heart stopped.
Wavy dark hair spilled from beneath the hood, the lights from the club playing over the lower half of her face, turning her pale skin different colours as she searched the length of the bar.
He dug his emerging claws into the wooden bar top to anchor himself, holding himself back as a fierce need to go to her swept through him and battling the waves of disbelief that crashed over him.
His heart said that she was nothing more than a fantasy. She was a figment of his overwrought imagination brought about by thinking of her too much, planning how he was going to make things up to her once he was free of his status and returned to the village, and how he was going to break it to her that she was his fated female. She couldn’t be here. It wasn’t possible.
His head and every instinct he possessed said that she was. She was real.
And she was as beautiful as he remembered, with her soft heart-shaped lips that made him yearn to kiss her, her impish button nose and her striking eyes framed by long dark lashes.
Looking at her now, he couldn’t believe he had managed to live so long without seeing her or smelling her scent, but the sight of her made the short time they had been apart feel more like an eternity than ever.
He breathed hard, clutching the bar top as he waited for her, his heart labouring as he silently willed her to notice him, even as he feared it at the same time. He knew she would be angry with him for leaving the pride and leaving her, and that making her understand his reasons was going to be difficult. He didn’t expect her to forgive him straight away, but he was willing to work to win her back.
She was all that mattered to him.
He didn’t give a damn about his position or the pride. There was only one reason he regretted leaving the village. There was only one reason it had killed him to leave.
It had killed him to leave her.
But she was here now. She was standing only metres from him, back within his grasp but still beyond it at the same time.
He cursed the gods.
They had given him both his wildest dream and his worst nightmare. Eight days. Why couldn’t they have brought Eloise to him in eight days, when he was free to be with her?
Waiting those eight days was going to be torture, but he would endure it. He would fight every instinct that demanded he claimed his mate, because she deserved to be cherished and treasured. She deserved to know that he loved her and what they had was real.
She deserved to have a choice and not feel obliged to be with him because he was her alpha and pride rules dictated she should give herself to him if he expressed an interest in her.
It wasn’t the relationship he wanted for them. He needed to know that she was with him out of choice, not because of his position.
He needed her to know that he respected her, loved her, and that she was the only female for him.
He wanted no other.
In eight days, that would be possible. He would be free to be her mate.
Right now, the laws of their kind dictated she could only be his mistress.
He would never do such a thing to his Eloise. He would never dishonour her in such a way or treat her as if she was his inferior. As much as it killed him, he would wait for her.
He would wait forever if that was what it took.
Another of the demons, a handsome dark-haired male, clapped a hand down on her shoulder and pulled her back around to face him, a seductive smile curving his lips.
The acrid tang of fear tainted her sweet scent.
Cavanaugh snarled and reacted on instinct. He pressed one hand into the bar top and easily vaulted it. The patrons on the other side gasped and rushed out of his path, and he landed silently on his booted feet. He shoved through the crowd, not caring how many fae or demons he pissed off as he made a beeline for her and the male who had dared to frighten her.
He pushed the last of the patrons out of his way and had his hand on her arm a heartbeat later. A thunderbolt zinged along his bones, setting him on fire and detonating the ticking bomb that was his temper. He growled through his emerging fangs as he yanked her behind him, tearing a gasp from her, and placed himself between her and the demons.
He slammed the flat of his other palm against the demon’s broad chest, shoving him into the four behind him. The demon growled at him, a corona of fire around his irises warning Cavanaugh that he was close to changing, his horns on the verge of emerging and revealing what he was to the humans around them.
Cavanaugh snarled back at him, the club brightening as his eyes began to transform, turning silver. His blood pounded and every instinct he possessed roared at him to protect Eloise. He fought the fierce need to shift, battling his snow leopard form as it writhed beneath his skin, stirred by his hunger to rip the demon male to shreds with his claws.
The demon straightened to his full height, standing almost five inches taller than Cavanaugh’s six-foot-six, and stared him down. Cavanaugh didn’t flinch. He held the male’s gaze as it brightened too, beginning to glow red. One of the male’s friends muttered something and touched his shoulder, and the male looked away from Cavanaugh, glancing beyond him to the bar.
Cavanaugh could feel Kyter there, watching what was happening. His silent backup.
He appreciated the support from his boss, especially when the demons cast him one last glare before disappearing into the crowd. He remained still, watching them go, breathing hard to steady himself and calm his need to shift. He would be out of his job, and his home, if his boss had to explain to the local authorities how a snow leopard had suddenly appeared in Underworld.
When the demon males had moved to the edges of his senses, Cavanaugh became aware of his hand and the delicate arm it gripped. He became aware of her where she stood behind him, trembling, and not only because of fear. There was fatigue there too, and something else.
The same reason he was shaking inside?
He had imagined this moment a thousand times or more. It hadn’t gone exactly as he had planned and it had come too early, but life loved to screw with him and he would find a way to roll with it.
He drew down a deep breath, held it, and slowly turned to face her.
She lifted her eyes up to his, their striking golden-brown depths hitting him hard. He always had loved them, had been able to stare into them for hours while she talked to him, laughed, and smiled. They expressed all of her feelings.
Tonight they made him feel cold inside.
They were haunted.
Her pain was clear in them.
She dropped her eyes to her feet and he frowned at how she held herself, her free arm tucked against her chest. Defensive. Afraid.
The scars on her wrists caught his eye again and he went to touch them but she edged back a step, placing her free arm beyond his reach. He lowered his hand, not wanting to frighten her or make her feel uncomfortable. He wanted to do the opposite. He wanted to comfort her.
The club crowd closed in again, jostling him. The music pounded, hurting his ears and irritating him. He fought the deep need to flash his fangs at the people around them to drive them away from Eloise to remove some of her fear. He wanted to vanquish it all. His deepest primal instincts demanded he take her somewhere safe in order to make that happen. Somewhere she would no longer feel afraid. Somewhere quieter where they could talk.
Somewhere they could be alone.
He tugged her with him through the crowd, shoving everyone out of his way again as he headed for the bar.
“Someone cover my space?” he shouted over the din as he reached the end of the bar.
Kyter nodded, losing his gloomy air for a second, a look in his golden eyes as he dropped them to Eloise and then pinned them back on Cavanaugh. He would answer the jaguar shifter’s questions later. Right now, he needed to know what had happened to Eloise to bring her all the way out here, so far from home.
Had she come for him? Or had she come for a different reason?
His heart said to let it be him, but he didn’t dare hope that he was the reason she was here.
He pulled her to his left, into a shadowy corner of the club, and up to the door in the black wall that led into the back. He punched in the code on the silver panel, twisted the knob, and pushed the heavy door open. It was only then he released Eloise.
He held the door for her. She slowly passed him, her pack shifting with each wary step she took into the warmly lit large space that acted as a huge hallway, with doors punctuating the wall to his right that led to the gym, playroom and offices, and a metal staircase against the wall on his left that led up to the apartments for the staff. When she was clear of the door, he stepped through and let it swing shut behind him. It slammed, the sound echoing around the expansive pale room.
Eloise jumped and whirled to face him. The grey hood of her coat fell back with the motion, revealing her to him.
“Sorry,” he muttered and she dropped her eyes to her feet again.
Cavanaugh silently cursed her. When he had imagined their reunion, she hadn’t been so damned meek. She had been the woman he had known a decade ago, before shit had gone south. She had been as beautiful and radiant as she had been back then too, her eyes bright and not haunted, her skin pale and clear, not scarred around her wrists and dark beneath her eyes.
The sight of her and her behaviour clawed at him, filling him with a dark need to discover what had happened to her and take action against anyone who might have harmed her.
He shook with that need, a storm brewing in his heart, a dangerous tempest that needed a target—someone he could make suffer as Eloise clearly had.
A target other than himself.
Right now, he could only place the blame on his own shoulders and it tore him apart, ripping his heart to shreds and filling his mind with poisonous words, ones that stung and made him bleed.
Eloise would never forgive him.
Eloise would never be his.