Blood pounding noisily in her ears, Tessa, despite the fear that consumed her and the demand her body issued to flee, held her place, instinctually reaching out to Goober. Her trembling hand stilled the growling dog and she stared intensely as the cougar before her looked from her to the dog and back again. As she considered the rifle in her hand, her heart raced. Although she didn’t intend to kill the magnificent animal on the rocky ledge above her, she would protect herself and Goober. Her constant companion stomped in place beside her, his hackles up, and continued growling, warning the large cat to keep its distance. When she’d ventured from her cabin just past dawn this morning, intent on foraging for mushrooms and wild leeks, she’d thought it would be a normal outing, similar to dozens she and Goober had enjoyed this month alone. She always carried the rifle, wary of the bears that lived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but had never considered she might encounter a cougar. Despite occasional rumours, she’d never before heard of a verified cougar sighting in the park and coming face to face with one terrified her. The cougar raised a thick, scarred lip in response to Goober’s threat, exposing long and sharp fangs. She watched the curl of its lip, the movement of its long red whiskers and attempted to ascertain its intentions. The red whiskers held her attention and when she saw the coarse hairs protruding from the cat’s eyebrows were also red, she tilted her head slightly in wonder. Not the rusty brown of every photo she’d ever seen of one, the cougar’s entire coat was a dark orangey-red, including its underbelly and muzzle, which should be white. There were no dark markings on its face and its eyes weren’t yellow as they should have been. The cat bore resemblance to a cougar in shape, but that was all, as it was too large, too heavy-set, and too red in colour. Its eyes moved to her hand on the rifle and her grip tightened, ready to swing the weapon up and fire a warning shot if need be. When the cat’s eyes met hers, she sucked in a startled breath for it wasn’t just the colour, the eyes themselves were wrong. Though cat-shaped, the eyes weren’t feline. As she took in the whites surrounding the hazel irises, her heart rate increased at the distinctly human eyes that held her gaze, the intelligence in them unmistakable. At her increase in alarm, Goober snarled loudly and took a step forward, and the cat hissed in response, now pulling back both its lips to reveal all its pointy teeth. The tip of its upper right canine tooth was missing and she marvelled at how this caught her eye in the midst of such a dangerous situation. Her hand grasped Goober’s collar tighter, her fingers curling around the leather as she kept her eyes locked on the cougar. It warily shifted its intense stare from Goober to her once more and the warning in its eyes was as readable as the plea in them, imploring her to keep the dog under control so that it didn’t have to react violently. “Sit, Goober,” she commanded, struggling to keep her voice steady and low, desperately hoping she wouldn’t agitate the cat further. Goober stiffly sat back on his haunches and emitted a low whine. Uneasily assuming a more relaxed pose, he was apparently unwilling to defy her, and she ran her hand down his back, a calming motion that the cat observed closely. Maintaining her vigilant stance, still tightly clenching the rifle, she ignored the chill that coursed down her spine when the cat’s human-like eyes met hers again. Then, with one last cautioning glare, the cougar turned its body and moved away. She stood perfectly still and watched it. Despite the scream of her tense muscles for movement, she stayed motionless, wanting to ensure the cat did indeed leave the area. Its powerful limbs negotiated the rough terrain, splaying the toes of its massive paws for balance and it agitatedly swished its tail as it stumbled when loose stones moved beneath its paws. She saw its fore ankle buckle and it lost its balance. As it scrambled to regain its footing, she noticed with alarm how precariously close the cat was to the cliff’s edge. Goober gave a sudden sharp bark and the cat flinched during its fight to remain upright before its body pitched to one side, the cliff side, unable to maintain its balance. Twisting its body in a vain attempt to stay on the edge, it seemed to hover a moment in mid-air, its clawed toes closing on nothing, and then disappeared from sight. Having heard the impact as its body collided with the unseen ground beyond the cliff’s edge, she remained motionless, straining to hear movement, expecting its pained cry, but the only sounds that reached her ears were the distant chirps of birds and the low whine of Goober. At the questioning tilt of his head, she nodded in answer and, steeling herself for the sight of the cougar, slowly moved to the edge of the cliff, Goober close by her side. When he dropped to his belly on the loose soil and stones, she followed suit, laying the rifle to the side to free both her hands before inching closer to the edge, keeping a watchful eye on Goober. Peering over the edge, she gasped. The cougar’s right front leg jutting out at an obscene angle to its body, blood pooling around its head, eyes shut with its mouth partially open, she was certain it was dead until she saw the slight rise and fall of its side. It was still breathing and she sighed deeply for she couldn’t allow the animal to suffer and, instantly deciding to put it out of its misery, she pushed her body back from the edge, closely followed by Goober. After regaining her feet and retrieving the rifle, she looked down to the dog. “C’mon buddy, let’s do this.” Goober wagged his tail and barked an enthusiastic consent before following her down the steeply sloping hillside. Minutes later, she rounded a patch of dense underbrush, knowing the sight that waited her beyond it. She’d spent the time moving downhill convincing herself that shooting the cougar was the right thing to do and assuring herself that she could pull the trigger. Although she had no way of knowing how injured the cat truly was, it would undoubtedly never walk again and therefore couldn’t possibly hunt. While it may have suffered a head injury severe enough to ensure its death, she couldn’t take the chance it might regain consciousness and suffer before it succumbed to its injuries. Preparing herself for the unpleasant but necessary task ahead, she cleared the brush and stopped short, her heart thrumming almost painfully in her chest as her eyes widened in disbelief. A naked man lay upon the ground at the bottom of the cliff, his right arm extended at an impossible angle from his body, drying blood caked on his forehead. Goober bounded toward the unmoving figure, barking. She stared unbelievably and then scanned the surrounding area for the body of the cougar even as her mind informed her she wouldn’t see it. He is the cougar. She shook her head. That wasn’t possible. The thought was ridiculous. It was insane. Look at him, her mind insisted, just look. The man’s shock of red hair was the exact coat colour of the cougar she’d seen. His right arm was broken or perhaps his shoulder was dislocated, she couldn’t be sure. The cougar had injured its right foreleg. Driving the thoughts from her mind, she drew closer to the man until she stood above him and shooed Goober away. Rugged looking, a full beard the colour of his hair covering a still noticeably square jaw, he was tall and muscular. And naked, she hadn’t forgotten that. Suddenly feeling like a pervert, her gaze skipped over his exposed genitalia, but not before noticing his rounded firm buttocks. His thickly muscled thighs caught her attention next and then his ravaged right knee. Badly injured, it seeped blood and was already discolouring. Noting his filthy feet, her eyes swept up his body once more, hoping desperately she wouldn’t see what she was certain she would. His hands were dirty as well. From walking on all fours. She shook her head again, vainly trying to force the insane notion from her brain, but it was too late, the thought had taken hold and was blossoming. The man was the cougar. Standing rigidly, her internal struggle continued for the thought was ridiculous. People couldn’t change into animals. It was the stuff of fantasy, of laughable films, it wasn’t reality, and it couldn’t be true. Then where’s the cougar? her treacherous mind inquired. Where did its body go? It didn’t go anywhere and you know it. He is the cougar. Her gaze returned to his face. Check, her mind prompted, look and see. Bending down, she reached forward then stopped, her heart pounding viciously. She had to know, one way or another, and, letting out a shaky breath, her fingertips touched his lip, scarred in the exact spot the cougar’s lip had been. His flesh was warm under her fingers and she hesitated again, weighing her next move, uncertain she truly wanted an answer. Do it, you need to know. Trembling, she pushed his upper lip up, exposing his teeth, and revealing his chipped right upper canine tooth. Abruptly standing again, her pulse pounding furiously in her ears at the proof the man at her feet had transformed from a cougar, she ignored Goober who impatiently pushed into her hip with his head. She took a step back, away from the man and the truth. The man was a werewolf, no, a were-cougar, if there was such a thing. There is such a thing. He’s right there on the ground. Now, what are you going to do? Not possessing an answer, she stepped back further and contemplated her next move. She could just leave him, go home, and forget what she’d seen. Before the thought had finished formulating, she knew she couldn’t leave him, as he was injured and needed help. With an exasperatedly resigned sigh, she turned to Goober. “We have to help him, buddy.” Goober cocked his head and then barked excitedly, as if agreeing with her, and she nodded. “We need to get some stuff first though, Goob. C’mon.” She began to walk away when the dog whined loudly causing her to turn back to him. He looked to the man and then to her. “It’s okay. We’ll come back to get him.” Seemingly reassured, Goober charged forward a few steps to join her and then trotted happily at her side as they headed to her cabin. Still uncertain she was doing the smart thing, her mind insisted it was the right thing to do. She considered enlisting the aid of her elderly neighbour, Earl, but quickly dismissed the thought. No doubt, Earl would disapprove of her taking a strange man back to her cabin. Besides, the man was a supernatural creature of some sort and, as much as she was about to expose herself to the possible dangers of his presence, it was unfair to subject Earl to potential risk. With soaring mountains at her back, she made her way back to the cabin, Goober at her side, her mind whirling with the implications of her next act. Bringing him back to her cabin was foolhardy. She could only hope her compassion for the man, or whatever he truly was, wouldn’t be her demise.
The noon sun beat down harshly upon Tessa and Goober as they made their way back to the place where the man lay. Already sweating, the items in her backpack and the rifle in the holder on it weighing her down, she pulled a hastily constructed stretcher behind her, comprised of long, strong but thin logs and a tarp she had staple-gunned to the logs. She’d put it together as quickly as she could, hoping it would be sturdy enough to support the large man. Her tiny frame struggled under the weight she bore, but intent on Goober pulling the stretcher and the man back to the cabin, she wanted the dog to save his strength for that. A huge animal, presumably half-Mastiff and half-Great Dane, he stopped periodically to shake, unhappy with the harness he wore, but she ignored him, still mulling over her decision. Now that the man was once more in sight, she was less certain about her decision to help him, worrying he may transform back to a cougar at any time during the journey back and endanger her and Goober. She feared he would die while in her care or survive his injuries only to become a threat once he regained his strength, concerned about what such a large man was capable of doing if he was ill-intended. However, the knowledge he would surely die if she left him where he was overrode her fears. Despite her self-imposed exile from society, she couldn’t ignore his needs even if he was a cat-person. Dragging the stretcher until she aligned it beside his body, she looked to his face. Swelling bloomed around the deep gash on his forehead and she worried about the severity of the wound. Her eyes scanned his large body again and she hoped she’d be able to get him back to her cabin. Pulling rope from the backpack, she tied it securely to the stretcher, leaving long ends with which to secure the man to it, and then contemplated exactly how to move him onto the stretcher. Deciding to use his position to her advantage, she pushed the stretcher against his body and then pushed him onto his back. Now on the stretcher, part of his body covered one edge, and she grunted with the strain of centering his body, his weight proving to be the challenge she feared it would be. She winced as she pushed his right arm into place at his side, trying to ignore how loose the arm was and how unnaturally it moved, and then tied him firmly to the stretcher, being mindful of his injuries. Patting her leg to call Goober to her, she then backed him into position in front of the stretcher, and secured the handles to his harness. With some encouragement, Goober strained against the weight but finally began to more forward. In short order, he seemed at ease pulling the stretcher behind him, wagging his tail the entire way, straining occasionally over rough terrain where she assisted him. After helping Goober yank the stretcher up her front steps, she had him pull it through the cabin to the bedroom, and then lined it up with the bed. She unbuckled him from his harness and then stood, contemplating how to lift the man onto the bed. Debating for a few moments, she finally devised a plan, quickly untied him from the stretcher, and then tied a length of the rope around his chest, under his arms, rocking his body as gently as she could to get the rope under and around him. Already exhausted, she strained to move his body until she had him sitting up, his back propped against the bed. Holding him in place with her legs until she caught her breath, she wiped sweat from her brow, knowing she’d never be able to lift his considerable mass onto the bed but that was where the rope would help. When she thought she’d rested enough for the next step, she called Goober back into the room and then commanded him to jump on the bed. Normally forbidden to do so, he happily complied. She held the rope end out to him and he cocked his head. “Take it,” she commanded, and he barked once, as if uncertain of what she wanted. “Come on, Goob,” she coaxed, “you love playing tug-of-war.” She wriggled the rope end until he finally grabbed it tightly between his teeth. “Good boy, now pull!” She’d purposely raised her voice on the last word, exciting Goober who pulled back forcibly, raising the man up, and she immediately squatted to place her hands under his upper thighs to help lift him. Goober stopped pulling but thankfully still held the rope taut. Even so, she was uncomfortably aware of the significant increase in the weight she bore. “Pull, Goob!” He did and she grunted loudly with the effort of lifting the man high enough for his buttocks to clear the edge of the bed. She then gently placed him down and took the rope from Goober who now precariously balanced on the edge of the mattress behind the sitting man. Resting the man’s upper body against hers, she smiled at Goober. “You’re a good boy,” she praised, “now, go.” As he jumped off the bed and raced out of the room, she gently laid the man back, awkwardly straddling his thick thighs, trying to keep her feet firmly on the floor as she stretched her body to ease his torso back. Supporting his lolling head, conscious of his warm breath against her arm, she gently laid him down. As she pulled her arms back, her hand brushed his beard, sending an excited chill through her. Aware of how long it had been since she’d touched a man, she untied the rope and then once more rocked his torso so she could gently pull the rope from beneath him. Then she alternately pushed and pulled his body until she positioned him in the center of the bed, his head on the pillow. Leaving him to fill a large bowl with warm soapy water, she returned to the bedroom and washed him gently but thoroughly, avoiding his crotch. Holding his hand in hers while she washed it, she swallowed hard. His hand was heavy and she concentrated on the bruised and calloused knuckles and not the awkward feeling the intimate contact evoked in her. When she finished washing his body, she bandaged the wound on his forehead and then noticed bruising surfacing on his right side. Reminding herself to keep a close eye on that newly seen injury, she moved to inspect his damaged knee. A large gash to the outer side of the kneecap continued slowly trickling blood. She placed a rag beneath his knee to protect her coverlet and then left him once more. Returning with a homemade poultice, she applied it to his knee, then covered the joint with a cloth. Exhausted, she stepped back to regard him once more. He was ruggedly handsome with strong features including the square jawline she’d noticed previously, a heavy brow and full lips, and she had no doubt his eyes were the exact rich hazel she’d seen in the cat’s eyes. His body was thickly muscled and her eyes scanned the defined pectorals of his chest, visible even under the thick red hair there. A deep scar marred his left pectoral, partway between his shoulder and the center of his chest. It looked fresh, as if from a recently healed injury and one that looked a lot like a gunshot wound to her. She took in his well-defined abs, how his thick chest narrowed to a trim waist to then flair out slightly at his hips. This time she allowed herself to look at his lap and couldn’t help the arch of her eyebrow at his impressive endowment, even flaccid. Forcing her eyes further down, she saw his thick and heavily muscled thighs and calves. His body was sensational, obviously the product of a physically demanding job or countless hours at a gym, perhaps both she reasoned as her eyes swept back up his form. She’d no doubt he’d be incredibly strong when he awakened, and, unsure of his future intentions, she tied his injured arm to the headboard, feeling monstrous for doing so, considering his condition, but reasoned she had little choice. Knowing she could do nothing else for him at the time, she covered him with a thin blanket and then left the room. Her chest tight with thoughts of what might happen when he regained consciousness she hoped he would be conciliatory and not violent upon awakening.
* * *
At first Finn was aware of only pain. It raged through his body but he couldn’t move, not even to open his eyes. Before he could panic, awareness slipped away from him once more. When next he was conscious, the pain was stronger and he struggled to open his eyes. He thought he saw a blue eye, then blonde hair, a flash of a pert nose and a high cheekbone, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open. Certain he’d seen a woman he once more descended into nothingness. The next thing he was aware of was a low moaning noise, and a few seconds later, realized the sound was coming from him. His nostrils flared at the distinct scent of an animal, a dog, he reckoned as his mind slowly cleared, and it was close. Adrenaline surged through him and his eyes snapped open. There was a massive dog by his side, panting, its long pink tongue spilling over its huge teeth. He tried to move back, wanting to place more distance between himself and the dog despite the animal’s apparent docile manner. Groaning loudly at the pain his attempted movement caused, agony tore through his head and he instinctually tried to lift his hands to it, only to find his right arm wouldn’t move at all and his left hand seemed caught by something. Keeping his keen hearing focused on the dog, he shifted his eyes to his hand and the rope that bound him to a wooden headboard. A cursory glance around the room informed him he was in a cabin, the walls comprised of hewn logs, deducing from the light spilling through the window it was just past noon. Having no idea how he’d ended up in the cabin, his heart thudded as he tried to remember what had occurred. About to pull forcefully enough to attempt to free himself, a woman’s voice speaking sharply startled him, so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn’t smelled her approach. “Goober! Come!” The dog rushed to the woman’s side and Finn stared at her, trying to ascertain why he was in her cabin, tied to a bed. She was petite and blonde, with fine features and blue eyes and he was certain she was the woman whom he’d seen as he drifted between awareness and unconsciousness. Her eyes zipped nervously to a wall, then back to him, as she cleared her throat and appeared frightened to speak with him. As more of his brain fog lifted, he recalled seeing her and the dog earlier, while he was in cat-form, and a surge of panic crashed into him. Struggling to keep his features passive, he waited to see what she would say. “Um … you’re awake,” she squeaked out, her voice barely audible. He didn’t respond to her obvious statement, now certain she knew he was a shifter. The rigidity of her stance, the fear in her eyes and her reluctance to speak with him, despite his current helplessness, all assured him she knew. She cleared her throat again as her eyes darted nervously around the room. “You … uh … You must be thirsty.” Before he could think to respond, she left the room, dragging the dog along with her. Finn looked around the small space. There was no television, radio, computer, or phone in sight, no photos, or personal items, nothing to give him a clue as to what kind of a woman he was dealing with. Armed only with the knowledge she’d restrained him while he was unconscious, he regarded her cautiously when she returned. She slowly drew near him, moving stiffly, and he detected her rapid heartbeat and smelled her nervous sweat. She was petrified of him. The knowledge relaxed him somewhat as she held the water glass to his lips with trembling hands. Drinking the water, he quickly swallowed. The cool water slid smoothly down his dry throat and he swallowed three small mouthfuls of it. He pulled his head back then knowing not to push his body despite his raging thirst. She placed the glass upon the small bedside table and then smiled feebly at him. “I’m Tessa.” “Finn,” he rasped and fought to keep from wincing. It hurt his head to speak but he found the sound of his voice more painful, for he sounded weak. His eyes moved to his bound hand then back, and she nodded to him. “I tied you up. I’m sorry but I didn’t know what to expect when you woke up, considering …” Her voice trailed off as she averted her eyes once more and any remaining doubt in his mind instantly vanished. She knew what he was. “What happened?” he asked. “You fell from a cliff, about twenty feet, I’d say. You were hurt and unconscious and I brought you back here.” He glanced around the room again this time searching for a sign of a man, but found none. When he met her eyes again, he tilted his head questioningly. “You live here alone?” She nodded even as he saw how uncomfortable she was revealing the information to him. His eyes trailed down his aching arm and side to his throbbing knee and, even under the blanket, he could see the swelling of the joint. She offered him more water and he gratefully accepted. Again replacing the glass, she inclined her head toward his leg. “Your knee’s pretty bad,” she said with concern in her voice. “Show me.” His voice already sounded stronger and he took some solace in that even as he was beginning to realize just how badly injured he truly was. She pulled back the blanket, lifted a cloth to reveal his knee, and he barely held back a gasp. The joint was more than twice the size it should be and grossly discoloured. A long jagged cut ran down the outside of his kneecap and was seeping yellowish fluid. “It looks better than it did,” she stated quietly. He looked to her incredulously. “This is better?” When she nodded, he regarded his knee again and noticed the edges of the bruising were already turning a bluish-brown. “How long have I been here?” “Two days.” Inwardly, he sighed deeply. Two days lost to the hunt, plus however many more until he could walk again. He’d spent two days unconscious, a time in which anything could have happened to him. This woman had cared for him for two days, all the while petrified of him and, confounded, his eyes met hers again. “Why did you bring me here? You’re a woman living alone and you brought a stranger, a man, into your home.” “An injured man,” she pointed out. “You needed help. I couldn’t have just left you out there.” “Others would have,” he remarked bitterly. “Well then good thing for you I’m not like them.” He stared at her, unsure of how to respond. She cast her eyes down and then hesitantly, or so it seemed to him, looked at him again. “Did someone hurt you?” she inquired. When he continued merely staring at her, she shuffled her feet. “Because I saw the scar on your chest … and … I …” She stopped stammering and her cheeks turned rosy. He was making her uncomfortable with his reticence when he should be thanking her for her help. Although he didn’t intend to confide in her, he responded. “Yes. Not too long ago.” It was as much information as he was willing to impart and he hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know. His scar was still a fresh-looking dark pink keloid. “It looks like a gunshot,” she remarked and he nodded. She was quiet as if she were waiting to see if he would divulge any more information. When he remained silent, she dipped her head. “Are you hungry? I made soup.” “Yes.” “Okay, I’ll get you some.” Turning to leave the room, she spun back toward him when he spoke again. “Will you please untie me?” She scowled, seeming to debate complying with his request. “You do have a rifle, in case you feel threatened,” he reminded her. “Though I don’t intend to hurt you.” “I also have a handgun,” she remarked flatly. He smiled tightly. “Then you can protect yourself but I truly don’t mean you any harm.” She held his gaze a moment longer and then rounded the bed. As she drew nearer his bound hand, he studied her intently. Her body language had softened as her fear of him quelled, even her heartrate had slowed, now only slightly elevated, and her features had loosened from the tight mask of apprehension she’d worn when she first entered the room. She was in her late-twenties, he guessed, but possessed an air of a much older being and he watched her closely as she untied the rope. “Thank you,” he said with a slight but appreciative smile. When she nodded in response, he saw something in her eyes he hadn’t noticed before. They were eyes that spoke with profound sadness, perhaps desolation. He recognized that look. It was the reason he avoided mirrors. His eyes traced over her slim torso and rested on the top of a pale pink scar high on her chest that snaked out from beneath the edge of the thin sweater she wore. She yanked the sweater down at her wrists and then pulled it tightly closed around her throat. As he moved to sit up, her hands were upon his chest, pushing back against him. “Stop! You can’t get up, you’re hurt!” The agonizing increase in the pain he felt echoed her words as he slumped back and turned uneasy eyes on her. “But I have to …” His voice trailed off with his unwillingness to complete his sentence. He had to urinate, badly. “Hang on,” she replied with a nod. She rushed from the room. When she returned a moment later with a plastic jug, he paled. “You’re joking.” “You don’t have much of a choice, sorry,” she replied with a shrug. Reluctantly, he took the jug from her, wiggled it under the blanket awkwardly with his left hand, and turned pleading eyes on her. “Can I please have some privacy?” She smirked slightly before leaving the room and he realized he hadn’t had much privacy during the past two days, as he’d been naked when she’d rescued him.
A few minutes later, Tessa entered the room carrying a tray with a bowl of chicken soup he could distinctly smell, a few slices of bread, and a mug of something that didn’t smell nearly as good as the soup. After placing the tray on the nightstand, she picked up the bowl and a spoon, scooped out some soup, blew on it, and then held it up to his lips. He accepted the spoonful from her even as he detested her feeding him as if he were a baby. She seemed to want to feed him, to care for him, and as he chewed the chicken and vegetables in his mouth, he wondered about her reasons for doing so. He watched her as she extracted another spoonful from the bowl and then blew on it before offering it to him. He found this as odd as why she hadn’t yet brought up the topic of his being a shifter. When she held out the next spoonful to him, he slowly lifted his hand until it covered hers without touching her, intent not to alarm her. “Can I please feed myself?” he asked. Nodding, she handed him the spoon and then held the bowl for him. He moved clumsily with his left hand yet was eager to do something for himself. After all, he would need to ask her to get the jug again at some point. Finally, he scraped the last bit of soup from the bowl, and she returned the spoon and empty bowl to the tray. “Thank you, very much,” he said. “That was delicious.” She motioned to the plate with buttered bread slices. “Bread?” “No thanks, I’d rather not chance it. I’m a little queasy, but the soup was exactly what I needed.” “There’s a lot more of it. Just let me know when you want more.” “I will,” he replied. She then handed him the mug. As he accepted it, a foul smell emanating from it assaulted his nostrils, and he glanced into the mug seeing what looked like tea despite its stench. He looked to her questioningly, his nose crinkling at the odor, and she chuckled lightly. “It stinks, right? Unfortunately it doesn’t taste very good either. However, it’s made of a blend of herbs that will help you heal.” Taking a tentative sip, he cringed at the taste. The tea was bitter, stinky, and downright repugnant, and he struggled to swallow the mouthful. “That is truly awful,” he remarked, eliciting a small smile from her. At his request, she brought a chair into the room to keep him company while he suffered through the rest of the tea. He wondered why she hadn’t asked him about his shifting ability and, as the quiet in the room became oppressive, he decided to broach the subject. “We should probably talk about what you saw the morning I was hurt,” he ventured. She remained quiet, and he sighed slightly. Conversation had never come easily to him and he struggled now to choose his words. “Most of that morning is still a blur. I don’t remember falling, but I do remember seeing you and your dog before my accident.” She nodded again. “I saw you when I was in cat-form.” At that, her eyes darted to the floor. He saw how she tensed her shoulder muscles and heard the accelerated beating of her heart. “What exactly are you?” she asked in a barely audible voice. “I’m a shifter.” “I’ve been thinking maybe I’m going crazy,” she replied softly as she looked to him, “living out here with only Goober for company. That there had to be a rational explanation for why the cougar’s body wasn’t there anymore but you were, but that’s the truth, isn’t it? You really were a cougar and now you’re a man.” She stared blankly at him and then slowly shook her head. “That’s, um … that’s not possible though. People can’t just change their appearance like that.” “My people can.” Her eyes widened. “There are more people like you?” “Yes.” “A lot more?” “No,” he clarified, “few actually.” “How, I mean, did something happen to you? Like, I don’t know, a genetic experiment or something like that?” “No. We’ve always existed.” “Well … I just …” Her voice trailed off as she looked to the floor again. Then she shook her head before meeting his steady gaze once more. “So you and your people are … a different species of being? Is that what you’re telling me? That you’re not human?” He nodded. She opened her mouth to speak then closed it again and merely stared at him. He understood her struggle to accept what he’d revealed and thought she was handling this situation quite well, considering how unbelievable it must be for her. Then she laughed suddenly, derisively, and he wondered if he was reading her correctly after all. “Oh boy.” She blew out a breath. “I’m going insane. I think I lost it. Entirely. Maybe I brought the cougar back here and I just think I’m having a conversation with a man.” Not liking the wild look in her eyes, he fought to think of a way to calm her. “No, it’s all true. I realize it must be hard for you to accept but it’s true. I’m a man, right now, and yes, I can shift into cat-form, you’re not going crazy. All this is real and …” His voice trailed off when she didn’t appear convinced, and he shrugged uncomfortably, wincing at the pain in his shoulder as he did. “Okay, well a cat can’t use a spoon right? So that should prove something.” “Sure it should, that maybe I was spoon-feeding a cougar and thought it fed itself.” “Well, what about my name? Do you know anyone named Finn? It’s not a common name. Why would you, even if you were going crazy, name a cat Finn?” “Who knows? I named my dog Goober, didn’t I? That’s not a common name either, is it?” He smiled slightly at her words and she tilted her head in response. “I’m sorry, I don’t find this situation amusing, but Goober is kind of a strange name for a dog.” “See? Maybe I am nuts,” she muttered. “You’re not,” he assured her. “Okay, what if I shifted? Maybe that would help convince you.” He was startled when she suddenly leapt up from the chair, waving her arms wildly. “No, don’t!” She took a nervous step in first one direction then another, an odd pacing that alarmed him, and he lifted his hand slowly, his palm out to her. “It’s okay, I won’t do it. It was just an idea,” he said as calmly as he could. “A really bad one!” She stopped her bizarre movements and crossed her arms over her chest, unconsciously pulling her sweater close around her neck. It was defensive posturing but he was more comfortable with these mannerisms. This behaviour was one he knew how to address. “You’re right,” he soothed, “it was a bad idea. I won’t do it. Just, please, calm down. Why don’t you sit down again and we’ll talk about this? Okay?” She retook her seat and regarded him with wide eyes, appearing frightened, angry, and curious at once, if that was possible. Reminding himself that, no matter how odd this situation was for him the oddity doubled for her, he dipped his head. “Okay, we’ll go slow. I know it’s unbelievable for you to hear but I am a shifter and I can change my form at will, from man to cougar.” “You mean whenever you want to? Not just at a full moon?” “I’m not a werewolf,” he assured her, “there are no such things. That’s mythology. Well, as far as the full moon thing goes. There are wolf-shifters but they can change form at will, just like me.” She paled. “There are more kinds?” “Yes. Bear-shifters, different types of large cats …” His voice trailed off at the unstable look in her eyes. “Let’s leave that for now. It doesn’t really matter, none of those other shifters are in this area and your chances of ever crossing paths with another shifter are remote. There aren’t many of us.” “But there are more. Like you, I mean.” “Yes.” “Here in the Smoky Mountains?” she questioned in a shaky voice. “Not anymore.” His tone was frigid suddenly and she tilted her head questioningly. “There was once, but not for years now,” he clarified. “Except you.” “Except me.” Although she fell quiet once more, her posture was more relaxed and he was glad to see it, as she seemed more curious than scared now. “So how come no one has spotted you before now? I’ve lived here for six years, vacationed here as a child, and I’ve never seen you or any other cougar before now. There are always rumours, but never any actual sightings. This area is filled with tourists every summer, and even in the winter, there are quite a few people living here and no one has seen any cougars, got a picture of one, or seen any tracks. How is that possible?” He paused before answering, unsure of how much information he should divulge. Although certain she was no threat to him, just as he was reasonably certain she would keep his secret, his kind had only survived by being secretive, by avoiding human beings as much as possible. Yet, he would have to remain here with her until he could walk again and fend for himself. She’d taken him in at potential risk to herself and he owed her the truth, or at least a portion of it. “I’m the only one here, and new to the area. I’m … hunting something. The reason no one has photos or other proof of our existence is because we’re very secretive, we’ve had to be over the years, and we’re very good at covering our tracks, so to speak, and ensuring we’re not seen.” “So I guess it was an accident, us crossing paths that morning, I mean.” “Yes.” He didn’t elaborate or inform her that, so focused on the scent he’d finally come across, he’d been too distracted to sense her and the dog approaching. It was a foolish mistake on his behalf. Had he not fallen and been taken in by her who knows what the outcome may have been. She could have informed the authorities of the existence of a cougar. He could have subsequently been hunted, scared away from the area thereby thwarting his plan. While it was hard to see his injuries as a blessing in disguise, the accident that morning very well may have been just that. Finn thought of his Pride’s Alpha, Gerrard, and the warnings he’d delivered sounded in Finn’s mind once more, informing him that he was too emotional to carry out his plan and that he should wait until he could rationally exact his revenge. He’d known Gerrard was right about him being too angry and therefore capable of making stupid mistakes but he didn’t care. Gerrard had lost so much too, and was scared of losing Finn as well and while he didn’t wish to see Gerrard suffer any more, he didn’t care if he died pursuing his vengeance. He was blind to the consequences of his actions, yes, but unwilling and indeed unable to abandon his plan, such as it was. No sophistication, no thought to attempt to make it look accidental, to ensure he wouldn’t be blamed. His plan was simple: kill the men responsible for murdering his loved ones. His face must have echoed his dark thoughts for Tessa fidgeted in her chair and once more pulled her sweater tightly closed around her neck. When he met her eyes, she averted hers for an instant before returning them to lock with his. “I was focused on a scent I picked up,” he added, nodding stiffly, “but I should’ve been more careful. I’m sorry if I scared you.” She furrowed her brow. “You did scare me but you got hurt. It should be me apologizing to you. If Goober hadn’t have barked and scared you—” “No, the ground was unsteady,” he insisted, cutting off her apology. “I should’ve been more careful, I really shouldn’t even have been on that ridge in the first place.” It was the truth and he thought he could divulge as much to her yet stopped before unveiling the rest, the reason he so recklessly pursued the scent, with no regard for his own safety. He couldn’t tell her that anymore than he could tell her why he was back in the Smoky Mountains, about the brutal murders of his family, nor how all he could focus on was tearing apart the men responsible. They’d taken too much from him and he would see them suffer. She stood, collected the tray and the empty cup from his hand, and broke the awkward silence that engulfed them again. “I’ll be back to clean your wounds and dress them.” As he watched her leave, his thoughts once more descended into darkness but not before he noticed the lush swell of her behind in the fitted jeans she wore.