He wasn't getting anywhere with his search and now he was being forced to put it on hold until the weather improved. In a normal situation, he'd just find local lodging. But to his extreme annoyance there was none to be had. Not that it was full, just that there wasn't any. No hotels. No inns. No rooms for hire. He'd been sleeping outside, but that wouldn't be possible tonight.
He came around a bend in the path, cursing when in his distraction his foot caught on a concealed stone. Pausing, he shook out the twist in his ankle, reaching for the water bottle clipped to his belt. Before he could take a swig, he heard a flutter of wings and looked up. A huge bald eagle was flying straight for him. He forced himself to remain still, not to flinch, as the deadly talons grew closer.
He watched the flight with an awe he'd never admit to. The bird circled his head, then landed a few feet before him and shifted in an explosion of color. A woman stood before him, tall, proud, and gloriously naked. Athletic. Incredible boobs. Each shifter species could trace their beginnings to one deity. Marathon, the greatest of message bearers may have inspired Hermes to give the gift of flight to his descendents, but he wouldn't be surprised if her fierce beauty was from Aphrodite herself.
She cocked her head to one side and twisted to look down the trail behind her. Exceptional ass. Her hair was short, white-blonde and spiky. His leopard lifted its nose to take in her sweet, womanly scent. She turned back to gaze at him. Her glowing blue eyes froze his tongue.
"Like what you see?" she asked.
Hell, yeah. If he didn't have other pressing obligations, he'd be happy to spend a week showing her just how much. Before he could frame a response that wouldn't get him decked another bird flew into the small clearing. It landed and shifted into a tall, heavily muscled man. Ignoring Nico, he turned to the woman.
He had to fight a low growl welling up from his throat. He'd never been possessive of women and shifters weren't prudish about nudity, but the idea of any man looking at her naked body awoke jealous instincts in his leopard. If they were aware of it, the two strangers ignored his struggle.
"Storm's coming in fast," the man said. The woman nodded. It was a regal, dismissive motion. He finally seemed to notice Nico and hesitated. "I'll see you later?"
Nico took an antagonistic step forward, but her expression never changed. "Perhaps." A cold wind gusted through the clearing. "You better go."
The man bowed slightly at the waist before stepping away, shifting and taking flight. She turned to Nico, and he noticed she was shivering. He shrugged out of his jacket and circled her, letting his hands linger just a moment on her shoulders. He wanted to touch, to stroke, to pet. She turned around, breaking the contact to face him.
"Thank you." Cool. Contained. He wanted to break her reserve, snap her control. He shook his head. This wasn't like him. The sooner he got away from her, the better. His cat growled at the thought of leaving her.
"I understand you've been looking for me," she said. She'd pushed her arms into the coat's sleeves and held a hand out. "Ajax Petros."
He didn't like surprises. Someone should have warned him. Shifter women came in all shapes and sizes and looks, from ugly to plain to drop dead gorgeous. Ajax Petros was on the heart attack inducing end of the spectrum. He'd never seen a more beautiful woman, shifter or human. She wasn't at all what he'd expected. Not from a Messenger and not with a name like Ajax.
"Isn't Ajax a man's name?"
Her hand fell to her side. "Do I look like a man?"
Hell no. His gaze swept down her body, head to toe and back up again, pausing to linger over the white thatch of hair between her legs before lifting to look into her eyes.
"Is Ajax short for something?"
"Alexandra." Now that fit. A beautiful name for this exquisite woman. What was the story behind the nickname? Never mind. He'd get to that later.
Edging closer, he reached out for the aborted handshake. She set her palm in his and the skin-to-skin contact was electrifying. He didn't release her until she pulled free. Pissed at being kept from touching the woman, the cat within him started to pace. He gritted his teeth and resisted to urge to pounce. "Nico Leonidas."
The wind blew again, and goose bumps rose on her exposed skin. He edged closer, not bothering to fight the need raging in him to keep her warm. "Is there someplace we can talk? You need to get out the weather."
Her eyes narrowed. "I've been taking care of myself a long time."
"Badly if this is typical behavior."
Her eyes seemed to flash blue fire. She clenched her jaw. Her body language screamed aggression and command. He was reminded that bald eagles were predators, but even those masters of the sky were no match for a full-grown male leopard. He wondered if the rumors were true. Were Messenger birds all trained to be elite soldiers? If he showed her some of the cat would she run? Or would she submit?
He moved forward until his chest brushed against hers. He could feel her breasts through his thin jacket, felt the shudders in her body she fought to control. Probably from cold, but in that moment he determined they would be for him. Every hard, edgy line of her body broadcasted her role in the bird pecking order--right at the top. Too bad. He wanted her--he was going to have her. Awareness lit her eyes, as if she could read his intentions, but she didn't back down. He smiled. He looked forward to tangling with her. She shrugged off the jacket and handed it back to him.
Pointing into the woods and underbrush on his right, she spoke, "There's a path on the other side of those bushes. Go one hundred yards up. I'll meet you there."
Then she shifted and flew in the direction she'd pointed out. He set off into the underbrush. After a few feet he came to several intersecting paths and went down the one that led the right way, the one where her scent was strongest. He'd lost sight of Ajax and ran to catch up.
The trail climbed up the side of the mountain. He began to think he was going in the wrong direction when it ended in a small clearing. There was no sign of the woman.
He looked up and saw the house. He'd seen many of these houses in the last two days. Werebirds seemed to prefer being high even in their human forms. But this one was different. This one was huge. Ajax leaned against a porch railing wrapped in a long robe and grinned down at him. It was the first non-neutral expression he'd seen on her face, and it damned near stopped his heart. He searched for a way up and found switchback stairs around the trunk of a huge tree.
At the top he looked around. It wasn't all one building after all. A rope bridge in front of him led to a separate space, and he could see others leading in other directions like the spokes of a one-sided wheel.
He turned away from them, his senses opening up, tracking her by scent and sound. He found the railing she'd leaned on and trailed his fingers over it, imagined he could feel her warmth lingering in the wood. Her scent was stronger here. Jasmine, vanilla and something unique he couldn't name. He followed it around the curving deck and through a set of double glass doors.
She had her back to him, pouring water into a coffee maker. He watched silently. Studied her. She removed the filter cup, rinsed it in the sink and measured grounds into it. Her movements were smooth and efficient. Her head tilted to one side a little as she worked. He found himself fascinated by the line of her neck. It was elegant. Graceful. Kissable. He could see her pulse hammering there and wanted to nibble. He didn't resist the impulse. Using his cat's stealth, he padded forward on silent feet. She jumped when he set his hands on her hips, held her breath when his tongue swiped the alluring spot on her nape.
"What are you doing?" she asked breathlessly.
"Tasting," he murmured before setting his teeth to the tantalizing skin. She let her head fall back against his chest, giving him better access and groaning. God, he loved that sound. It almost undid him. And it snapped him back to reality. What the hell was going on here? He dropped his hands like they'd been burned.