Shane’s relaxed muscles bunched as he poised to flee, but stunned horror locked him in place. Oh fuck. His Hunt wasn’t starting in a few days. He wasn’t sure when his path had chanced to cross a cat’s, or what he’d done to pique this cat’s interest, but whatever reprieve Shane had thought he’d won by putting distance between him and the festive orgy at the landing pad vanished into the ether. The cat could’ve been stalking him since the pond. Since the berries. Since he set foot in the damn arena. While he’d been congratulating himself on how clever he was, busily believing his illusion of safety, his Hunt had begun.
Panic sweat dotted his forehead and slid down his temple. He reflexively clenched his fingers in the pack and clutched his sleeping bag to his chest. He quaked at the sounds of tearing leaves and the heavy thud of an animal leaping to a limb overhead.
Lure him to chase. Run, damn it.
A low warning snarl whispered on the breeze.
Now, now, now!
Shane leaped to his feet, shoving his pack and sleeping bag away from him. Digging his boots into the earth, he launched his body forward—any direction. Didn’t matter. He couldn’t see where he was going anyway.
His knees lifted. His legs pumped. Fear choked him. When he barreled into the first tree, he smothered a scream. The cat’s throaty growl echoed around him, drowning out even the roar of his pulse. That husky, feral sound prodded him on. He grunted at another impact, rough tree bark digging into flesh to bruise and scrape. He kept his body loose, so the hit didn’t slow him much.
He sprinted. Blindly.
Smacked into another tree.
Then into a fucking bush full of thorns. An animal concealed in the painful, prickly mess screeched, but whatever predator protested from the foliage was harmless compared to what stalked him from the treetops. Shane swerved away, but only in desperate search of a clearer path. Concentrating to listen for any trace of the cat’s route above him, Shane gained several strides’ worth of forest floor before he gasped at a hard hit against his shin. Wood snapped. Agony stabbed into him just below his right knee. Reeling at the shock of pain, he reached down, shaky fingers curling around the twig that had impaled him. Wheezing, he pulled the shard of wood free.
First blood spilled.
Shit, the cat hadn’t even dropped to the forest floor yet.
Wet trickling from his leg, Shane took off. At least the slap of hurt from the injury had jarred him from his frenzied flight. Think. He had to think. Get away? Impossible. Not that Shane truly wanted to escape…yet. He’d intrigued a finicky cat, a not-inconsiderable achievement given the wealth of available competitors from which to choose. The trick was goading the cat to hunt him.
Shane’s feet sped over terrain he couldn’t see, but his mind had engaged now. He lifted his arms to grope for obstacles ahead of him as he fled. When anything other than chill night air brushed his grasping fingertips, he shifted his body to deflect the collision. Sometimes he moved to the left, others to the right, varying the pattern to make his bearing unpredictable and therefore more difficult to track.
Stumbling through the darkness, he smothered breathless, hysterical laughter because…seriously? With the racket he was causing, a child would have little trouble marking his location. What else could he do? Stay where he was? Fight? Shane was no soldier. Hide? Where could he conceal himself from a creature on native hunting ground that regularly stalked more lethal animals than one short human through the night?
Shane ran. Panting for air, fear zapping through him, he ran.
The cat toyed with him. He could take Shane down anytime, whenever he wanted. With every limb that creaked overhead, and when the leaves high above him shook, another rush of adrenaline cascaded through Shane, giving him the energy he needed to scramble faster. Longer. Harder.
Sly and intelligent, Mariket’s cats were no different from other species of big cats offworld in one essential respect: cats loved to stalk and pounce. The only thing cats liked better than playing with their prey was a challenging hunt. Shane might be hobbled by his blindness in the dark, but he could do better than this.
At the next thicket, Shane dropped to his knees on the forest floor, and hands forward to protect his face, he dived underneath instead of dodging to the side. Despite the thorns that tore his clothes and skin, Shane darted ahead. His gut balled for one stuttered, gasping breath as dense underbrush slowed his pace. He shuddered in relief when he pushed through to the other side.
He jumped to his feet and raced on.
The cat watched him. Closely. The scratch of claws on tree trunks and whooshing leaves descended from the canopy, lower and lower still, following Shane’s path from above. Did Shane’s strange behavior fascinate him? Arouse him?
Recklessly, he grasped at the first limb within reach above his head and twisted, swinging his body in a new direction. He burrowed through brush too. He leaped. He jolted from side to side rather than staying on a straight path. He used his only weapon—unpredictability—to make the cat’s task of hunting him as difficult as he could, but no one, not even Shane who had slavishly used the screening center’s training facilities to strengthen and tone his muscles, could run forever. He’d never give up. He’d never let the cat run him to ground. Shane would continue streaking across the forest floor as long as he had breath in his lungs.
His breath was becoming a lot harder to come by, though.
Shane panted so loudly the sucking inhalations resounded in the darkness. His muscles burned, legs shaking with the strain of the marathon sprint. Sweat slicked him, wetting his clothes. In spite of the frantic demands his brain issued to his body, he slowed. Woozy from prolonged oxygen depletion and overexertion, Shane stumbled and tripped, but no matter how frequently he thudded to the ground, he pushed back to his feet. If his legs didn’t work, he used his arms to pull himself up by vines wrapped around tree trunks or by the brambles that shoved sharp thorns into his skin.
He wasn’t weak or a quitter. The damn cat would take him down, or Shane would run until his laboring heart exploded.
Chest squeezing so tight, the hurt of that combined with the increasing pain of muscles cramping in his side, Shane believed it just might. Competitors had died in the Hunt before. During the screening process, the cats required a thorough medical exam that weeded out unhealthy specimens, and their training included fitness and nutrition regimes tailored to get each species in prime condition. Competitors attacked one other to prove their superior strength to the cats, though, and medical evac teams didn’t always reach the wounded in time. No matter how carefully the cats prepared the arenas by removing unwanted dangers, accidents happened. The same rare venoms the cats traded offworld—the most toxic substances in the explored star systems—could be delivered by the bite of an insect or slime coating a frog. Some competitors ignored their survival training and gave in to starvation by risking foraged nuts or berries that turned out to be poisonous. Some collapsed under the physical strain long before the cats’ mating cycle ended.
Trembling more from exhaustion than fear, he tripped again. Too tired to bother lifting his spent, rubbery arms to protect himself, he face-planted into the forest floor, and the stingy amount of air he’d inhaled into his lungs escaped on a pained wheeze. Still, he rolled. He shook his head and forced his arms to push his torso up. Somehow he bent his legs under him, and groaning hopelessly, he lurched to his feet. He staggered, flinging a hand out to brace himself, but even before he found his balance, he was running again. His pace had devolved to urgent shuffling, but damn it, he kept moving.
When the ungentle shove between his shoulder blades sent him flying back to the dirt, all Shane could think was, thank gods. The hideous race through the black night was over. The painful bounce of his body against the ground didn’t lessen his relief. The cat pounced. One hand gathered Shane’s arms above his head to manacle his wrists and push them into the leafy mulch. The other slammed down at the base of Shane’s spine. Shane arched, reared his head, and kicked—anything to loosen the cat’s grip or shake him off, but he was too depleted to put up much of a fight. The cat pinned Shane’s thrashing legs with his own. The weight on Shane’s wrists and on his back increased, at first merely uncomfortable and then intensifying. The pressure ground his vertebrae in wordless threat.
With a hurt gasp, Shane froze. He let his body melt into the forest floor.
The cat waited.
Gradually the pressure on Shane’s spine relented. Shane didn’t rise or shift. He didn’t so much as twitch. Continuing to struggle would only win him more pain and possibly trigger greater aggression from the cat. So Shane lay, body loose and boneless. The cat slowly eased the hand away from Shane’s back.
Swearing he wouldn’t fight this, Shane squeezed his eyes shut. When the cat raked claws down the line of his spine, shredding his shirt and leaving shallow, stinging cuts from the top of Shane’s shoulder to his waist, he stiffened. Cried out. Gods. His stomach flipped, but once he swallowed down his fear, Shane concentrated to assess the wounds. The scratches didn’t hurt much. He shivered at the cool night on his back, ruined shirt flapping in tattered shreds, but his blood trickled instead of gushed. The cat stroked Shane’s newly bared skin, the tip of one claw tracing the marks as though pausing to evaluate his work. Or perhaps admire it.
Shaky but determined, Shane pressed his lips firmly together to stifle the scared animal sounds that wanted to tear from him as the cat skimmed the abraded skin with the pads of his fingers. Shane couldn’t move. The cat’s grasp locking Shane’s arms to the ground forbade that, and Shane wasn’t suicidal. He’d been caught fair and square. He wouldn’t resist. The gentle petting after the mating scratch—when he’d expected only a wild, rough fuck—unhinged him, though. He whimpered, a sound he’d never believed would come from his throat, but the cat didn’t stop. He caressed Shane softly, soothing, each skip of his fingers alarming and disarming Shane until he couldn’t take the anxiety roiling inside him a moment longer. “Please,” he said on a tremulous gasp.
The cat wasn’t willing to give up gloating over his prize. He wouldn’t be hurried. He couldn’t be bargained with or his better nature appealed to. That didn’t stop Shane from begging again, “Please.”
The material tightened around Shane’s chest, followed by the sound of rending fabric. Nudging the wrecked shirt apart, the cat swept a flattened palm up and down the quivering muscles of Shane’s back. “No,” he protested when the cat speared careful fingers into Shane’s hair, formed a fist, and gently but stubbornly tilted Shane’s head up in the direction of his imprisoned wrists. The cat drew Shane’s hands closer. The iron grip holding him captive dizzied him. The musk of the cat’s heat wafted around him, the aroma so rich Shane’s mouth watered at the scent. Like coffee and sex. Earthy. Irresistible. Shane breathed through his mouth rather than his nose to avoid the intoxicating smell coming off the cat, but too late. His dick stirred in his pants. His balls tingled. His asshole clenched and released as the cat’s cocktail of mating pheromones powered through him, inciting him. Inflaming him.
The cat leaned over him, the first brush of fur against Shane’s torn and naked back like a brand. Cats were hot, their normal body temperatures several degrees higher than humans’. He’d known that. He hadn’t prepared for the sleek velvet of the cat’s pelt against his skin, though, or how bewitching that warmth would feel.
Damn it, the cat’s scent was getting to him! He parted his lips to take in cool, fresh air, but the damage was done. When the cat looped an arm around him to lift his hips from the ground, then skimmed a caress down, chest to stomach, Shane trembled, murmuring a faint protest only when the cat fumbled at the waistband of his pants.
The cat would fuck him.
And the cat hadn’t sharpened his claws on Shane nearly enough.