Ryker Allen studied the small, five-foot-six man sitting across the table from him. With his usually unkempt hair now properly cut and styled, Daniel was gorgeous, although still way too thin. It didn't lesson Ryker's attraction to the King of the Coyotes, but it worried him.
The battle with The Hunters was far from over, and Ryker knew the coming months would require strength. In many ways, Daniel reminded him more of a gangly pup when in shifted form.
Reaching across the table, Ryker covered Daniel's hand. The two of them had grown much closer over the last several days. Every moment spent with Daniel felt like a gift from Earth Mother, but he couldn't help wondering when it would all be taken from him.
Eventually, Daniel would find his destined mate, and Ryker would once again be alone. Those beautiful "true blue" eyes that marked Daniel as the king of his species looked up at him.
"Is there something wrong?" Daniel's voice was soft and gentle.
"No. Just trying to figure out if we should try and reach Hakan while it's still light out, or wait for morning."
Daniel licked a spot of ketchup from the corner of his mouth. "How much further?"
"Not much. Two miles down the road and a couple of hours hike up the mountain."
"So we should have plenty of time to reach him before the sun sets."
Ryker knew he was looking for an excuse to spend another night with Daniel before beginning the next phase of their mission. After giving Jarek, the cougar shifter, directions to the safe haven aptly named Refuge, Daniel had become even more withdrawn. Ryker worried that Daniel was tiring of him.
The two of them had spent the night in each other's arms. Other than a few tender kisses, nothing sexual had happened, but Ryker knew they were building toward it. For him, the important thing was getting Daniel over the trauma of The Hunter's attack that had killed many of the wolf shifters he'd been living amongst.
Once they delivered the silver dagger and Jack's great-grandfather's journal to Hakan, they'd be on their way to Canada to join the other shifters. What would happen when he returned Daniel to Refuge? Daniel seemed to be in a hurry since leaving Jarek. Did he sense his mate would be waiting at Refuge?
"I take it you'd rather find Hakan today."
Daniel shrugged, refusing to meet Ryker's gaze. It was an action that Ryker noticed the man did a lot. He assumed it had something to do with living as a pet for years, instead of the king that he was.
"Finish your lunch and we'll head that way."
Ryker looked at the half-eaten plate of food. Before he could protest, Daniel was up and out of the booth. Tossing several bills onto the table, Ryker followed Daniel out to the black four-wheel drive pickup he'd bought in Durango.
The truck was high enough off the ground that Daniel had a hard time climbing in. Ryker came up behind Daniel and placed his hands on the shifter's slender hips, easily lifting him into the cab.
At six-five, Ryker was the perfect height to lean in for a kiss. He wanted to devour Daniel's mouth, but held his lust in check. Maybe after dealing with Hakan, Daniel would be relaxed enough to open up.
Hakan was another set of worries that Ryker had been dealing with. As the son of Father Sky, Hakan was more like Ryker than anyone else on the planet. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. Did Hakan have the same gifts Ryker did?
He pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the base of the mountain. As far as he knew, Hakan had lived in the same place for hundreds of years. Ryker wondered if the man had received many visitors in all that time. Did Hakan go into town and scratch his sexual itches, or did he take care of them himself?
He decided to put that line of thinking aside. Ryker wasn't even sure what team Hakan batted for, so why was he thinking about the man's sexual practices?
He glanced at his passenger. "I wish you would've eaten more of your lunch."
Daniel squirmed in his seat. "It's not that I'm not hungry. My stomach just isn't used to eating much."
"Maybe we should stop more often and get smaller meals into you, five or six times a day."
Daniel shrugged. "I take it you don't like skinny guys."
Ryker reached across the seat and cupped the side of Daniel's face. "You're gorgeous, and you know it. Things might not be easy for awhile. I just want you as strong as possible."
Daniel leaned into Ryker's touch. "Jarek knows who his mate is."
"Yeah? How do you know that?"
"Because he was happy about going to Refuge. Cougars are solitary animals, except when they're planning to mate."
The reasoning made sense to Ryker. "You could be right. Do you begrudge him?"
"Then why is it bothering you?"
When Daniel didn't say anything, Ryker's hand slid back to the steering wheel. "I thought we'd talked about sticking together until you find your mate."
"We did," Daniel whispered. "And it's fine. I like you a lot."
Ryker saw Daniel wipe at his cheeks. He checked his rearview mirror and pulled over to the side of the road. He felt incredibly stupid for weaving dreams of spending time with Daniel. Ryker would never admit it to a soul, but part of him hoped Daniel's true mate had been killed by The Hunters.
"But...?" Riker repeated.
Daniel turned and looked up at him with tears in his eyes. Ryker couldn't help but want to gather the small coyote shifter into his arms, and protect him from whatever was hurting him.
"I'm starting to feel funny. Like something's coming." Daniel shook his head. "Sounds stupid, but it's like I'm being pulled from the inside."
"I don't know." Daniel looked down at his hands. "But I've been hard since we left Jarek's."
Ryker glanced down at Daniel's crotch. Even with the baggy jeans he wore, the shifter's cock was evident. Ryker wanted nothing more than to take care of Daniel's problem for him, but he got the feeling his advances wouldn't be welcome.
"Do you need to ... ya know, take care of it?"
A blush worked its way up Daniel's neck to his entire face. "That's okay. The way I'm feeling, once won't be enough anyway."
Ryker almost groaned at the image of a lustful Daniel jacking himself in the cab of the truck as they drove down the road. Yum. It seemed the hornier his little shifter became, the hornier Ryker also became. It must be the pheromones in the air.
Ryker looked down at his own erection. "Seems I'm having the same problem."
Daniel bit his lip as he stared at Ryker's groin. "I could, um, take care of that for you."
Ryker leaned his head on the back of the seat and groaned. "I'd like nothing more, but let's wait until we get off this road."
What the hell was happening to them? Ryker put the truck into gear and pulled back onto the road. Half a mile later, he turned onto a dirt path and drove another two miles before the track ended. His cock was beginning to throb, and the front of his jeans was soaked with pre-cum. Fuck.
Evidently, Daniel was having the same problem. Before Ryker even turned off the engine, Daniel was ripping off his clothes and scrambling out of the cab.
"I'm burning up," Daniel moaned, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Ryker tore off his shirt and got out of the truck. He reached for his zipper, but Daniel's hands were there to take over.
"What's wrong with me?" Daniel asked, falling on his knees in front of Ryker.
"Us, not just you," Ryker said. The shifter's mouth covered Ryker's cock, and he almost lost it. How long had it been since Jack? Shit. Ryker pushed that thought away and buried his fingers in Daniel's shoulder-length brown hair.
Could this be the mating fever he'd heard Toby talk about? Did that mean?
"I need to fuck you." Ryker reached down and pulled Daniel up into his arms. He looked around, finally settling on a small patch of grass.
As if by instinct, Daniel presented his ass like a bitch in heat. The shifter's sphincter muscles clenched and unclenched like they were beckoning his cock. Gathering all the moisture he could, Ryker spat in his hand and began lubing Daniel's hole.
"Fuck me," Daniel cried.
"You're not ready yet."
"I don't care. Just fuck me."
Ryker removed his hand and spat on the palm once more. Spreading the saliva down the length of his shaft, he placed the head at Daniel's hole. Within seconds, Daniel was pushing back, impaling himself on Ryker's length.
The squeeze of Daniel's tight little body around his cock was incredible. As good as sex had been with Jack, Ryker didn't think it was even in the same ballpark as with Daniel. "So good."
"Harder," Daniel ordered with a growl in his voice.
Ryker gripped Daniel's hips tight enough to leave bruises and began fucking his man in earnest. The slap of skin had birds taking flight all around them.
Daniel buried his shoulder in the tall grass and reached down to grab his cock. "Yessss," he hissed as he shot thick ropes of cum onto the long blades of grass.
Ryker felt his orgasm approaching and prayed his cock would behave like Jack's had done when he had officially mated with Toby. Please, please.
With the first burst of seed, Ryker knew it wasn't meant to be. Although more gratifying than any other coupling in his life, the lack of physical changes to his penis told him more than words ever could. What should've been a jubilant climax left Ryker feeling incredibly empty. It had been a pipe dream, and he knew it, but it didn't fill the void in his heart.
He pulled out and sat back on his heels. Daniel must've had a similar thought, because the coyote shifter refused to look him in the eyes. No words seemed necessary. They both knew a mating hadn't taken place.
Ryker stood and found his jeans. He pulled a handkerchief out of the back pocket and quickly cleaned his cock before passing the fine linen over to Daniel.
When they were both dressed, Ryker swung his heavy backpack over his shoulder and the two of them headed up the mountain side. Although he didn't have a map, Ryker knew instinctively where he was going. It felt like his brain had been programmed with GPS coordinates to Hakan's house.
Halfway up, Daniel stopped. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but quickly snapped it shut.
"Something wrong?" Ryker asked.
Daniel crossed his arms in front of his chest, hugging himself. "Something's not right. I feel like my insides are being pulled in two different directions."
"What do you mean? Like there's a part of you that wants to do one thing, but another part wants to do another?"
Daniel shook his head and held his stomach tighter. "No. Like literally, my body's being torn in two different directions."
Despite the earlier moment of awkward tension, Ryker wrapped a comforting arm around Daniel. "Let's find Hakan. We'll give him the dagger and the journal, and then I'll get you back to town. I'm sure you're just tired."
"What's Hakan supposed to do with the knife?"
With his arm still around Daniel, Ryker began to walk slowly to Hakan's cabin. "We need an alternate way to kill The Hunters. The knife is effective, but not very practical, since you can only kill one at a time. Hakan's a silversmith, so we're hoping he can help us."
Plastered to Ryker's side, Daniel began walking faster, almost pulling Ryker along.
"If you don't slow down you're gonna fall."
"I can't help it," Daniel whined, disengaging Ryker's arm and rushing on. "I'm being pulled."
Ryker stopped. "By who?"
Only a few yards in front of him, Daniel grabbed his stomach once more. "I don't know, but I'm getting that feeling of being split in two again."
When Daniel started to double over, Ryker rushed forward and caught him.
"We need to keep going," Daniel panted. "I don't know why, but we do."
Ryker had a sinking feeling in his gut. He needed to talk to Earth Mother, but couldn't do it with Daniel around. Out of nowhere, Hakan stepped out of the trees in front of them.
Daniel continued to walk, tugging on Ryker's hand.
"Closer," Daniel pleaded.
"Ryker?" Hakan asked.
Ryker's gaze met Hakan's, and he no longer needed to be pulled along. The two men walked toward each other until they were standing with only Daniel between them.
Daniel sighed. "It's gone." He glanced over his shoulder at Ryker. "What's going on?"
Ryker shook his head. "I don't know, but I intend to find out."
"It won't help," Hakan informed them. "I asked Father what was happening to me as soon as the two of you started up the mountain. He said all would be revealed with time and patience."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Ryker asked.
"Father enjoys making me work for an answer." Hakan turned and started up the hill. "Come on. It's not that much further."
Hakan had taken about twenty steps when Ryker heard Daniel's whimper. "Daniel?"
Hakan stopped and walked back toward Daniel and Ryker. When they were once again standing within arm's length, Daniel released the hold on his stomach.
"It wasn't as bad as before, more like a gnawing instead of sharp pain. What the fuck is that?"
Narrowing his eyes, Hakan reached out and laid a hand on Daniel. "How does that feel?"
"Like a big hand on my chest, but good, I guess. Why?"
Hakan tilted his head to the side. Removing his hand from Daniel, Hakan shrugged. "Nothing. I thought I understood, but the puzzle is still ours to solve. There's a reason I felt the two of you earlier. I just need to figure out what it means."
Hakan turned away and Ryker spotted Daniel immediately reaching for his stomach. "Stop!" he yelled at Hakan. "Whatever's going on, for some reason it involves the three of us being in close proximity. Let's stick together until we figure it out."
Daniel and Hakan looked at him with doubt in their eyes, but as a unit, they began to travel up the mountain. Despite what Hakan had told him earlier, Ryker wanted to talk to Earth Mother. He wondered if Daniel would be able to handle the separation such a conversation would require.
In order to speak to Mother, Ryker needed to free his soul of his body. The heat generated by such an act would be too much for Daniel to withstand. He doubted the transition would have an effect on Hakan, but Daniel was his main concern.
In the middle of their walk, they came to a ten-foot tall chain-link fence. A large sign said, "Restricted Area Keep Out." Ryker knew from reading Hakan's file that he owned four-hundred acres, but he hadn't expected the security that was evident. Security cameras seemed to track their every move, and, if Ryker didn't miss his guess, the fence could be electrified.
"Where're you getting your juice?" he asked.
"Juice?" Hakan questioned.
"Electricity. I didn't see any poles on the way up."
Hakan looked at him as if he were crazy. "Father gives me everything I need."
Once they were safely inside the fence, Hakan flipped a switch, the hum signaled activation. Fifteen minutes later, they came to a cleared field. Solar panels stretched across the meadow like soldiers. Hakan didn't say anything, but Ryker noticed the grin on his otherwise stoic face.
He still didn't have a good read on the guy. His file said he'd been a medicine man, but his body was that of a warrior, with raven black hair reaching down past his ass, and muscles to rival his own.
They eventually entered Hakan's main living space. The trees were sparser, but still canopied the house and out buildings. Hakan led them to the front porch and sat stoically in a large rocking chair. He gestured toward the swing.
"I believe you have a journal to show me."
Ryker shrugged out of the backpack and took the indicated seat, pulling Daniel down beside him. He produced the cloth-wrapped journal and handed it to Hakan. Daniel began to fidget beside him.
"You okay?" he asked the small man.
Daniel glanced at Hakan. "Can you slide closer?"
With furrowed black brows, Hakan moved his chair to within two feet of the swing. "That better?"
Daniel sighed and sat back as if exhausted. "Much. Thank you."
Ryker wished he knew what was going on with Daniel. Their sexual liaison at the base of the mountain had him feeling proprietary. It took all his inner strength not to slip into one of his shifter skins and tear Hakan to pieces.
As Hakan studied the pictographs in the ex-Hunter's journal, Ryker wrapped an arm around Daniel and pulled him closer. Daniel's head rested against Ryker's chest. The climb and mysterious pain evidently had taken its toll on the coyote king, because he was soon asleep.
Several times Hakan made surprised noises as he deciphered the journal. "Anything?" Ryker asked.
Hakan glanced up. "It mostly talks about Aquene's disgust at his own people and the atrocities they committed on the Roanoke colonists."
Hakan nodded. "William Fenton's real name. Anyway, it tells of his first meeting with Sara, the woman who eventually changed his life. He ran from The Hunters in the middle of the night and traveled back to Newfoundland to be with Sara."
Hakan's gaze went back to the book as he continued to read. Ryker watched as Hakan's face became more animated. Hakan shook his head and flipped back a few pages, evidently rereading a passage.
"I think so, but pictographs aren't like written words. I can't be positive, but I think I've figured out what's going on with Daniel."
Ryker tensed. How could Daniel be in a book that was older than he was? "What's it say?"
Hakan suddenly looked uncomfortable. "There's a legend among The Hunters that until the day the bridge is formed between Earth and Sky, the curse can be undone."
"And what does that have to do with Daniel?"
Hakan shook his head. "I'm not sure, but don't you think it has to be more than a coincidence that you guard the shifters of the earth, and I guard the sky shifters? Yet Daniel's the only one who feels pain when the two of us are separated? I mean, think about it. The Hunters are shifters who've lost the ability to shift. Since you arrived, I've felt you. I felt you try to mate Daniel, and the disappointment you felt when it didn't work out."
Hakan rubbed his eyes and gestured to Daniel. "The answer's right in front of us. We just need to figure out how it works."
Ryker gazed down at Daniel. Did the lonely shifter hold the key? What would be the benefit of joining him and Hakan? Ryker smoothed the hair out of Daniel's eyes. "I need to go talk to Mother. Will you watch him?"
Hakan looked uncomfortable. "Watch him?"
"Yeah. Hold him. Care for him while I'm gone." Ryker was surprised he'd said it. Why did the idea of Hakan holding Daniel no longer upset him?
With the journal still in one hand, Hakan opened his arms. Ryker scooped Daniel up from the swing without his little shifter stirring. "I'm not sure how long I'll be," Ryker explained.
When he placed Daniel in Hakan's arms, the three of them touched for the first time. Ryker was almost knocked on his ass by the jolt of sexual electricity that flew through him.
Hakan's sharp intake of breath and Daniel's answering sigh signaled that Ryker wasn't the only one affected. Ryker stared into Hakan's eyes. "Yeah, I definitely need to have a talk with Mother."
Still half asleep, Daniel reached down and rubbed the noticeable bulge in his jeans. "What happened?"
Ryker knelt between Hakan's spread thighs and placed a kiss on Daniel's cheek. "I'm not sure, sweetheart, but I'm going to find out."
Daniel opened his eyes, noticing for the first time that he was now in Hakan's lap. "Where're you going?" Daniel asked Ryker.
"To the trees to talk to Mother. I'll be back as soon as I can. Hakan will take care of you until I get back."
Hakan grunted, and Ryker wasn't sure which part of the statement the gorgeous man had a problem with. After giving Daniel a gentle, but open mouthed, kiss, Ryker stood.
He was halfway to the forest before he heard the first moan. Ryker stopped and glanced over his shoulder. Daniel was once again clutching his stomach. Ryker glanced toward the trees and then back to Daniel, torn. Was finding answers important enough to put Daniel through whatever pain he appeared to be experiencing? Maybe the answers lay within the rest of the journal.
Ryker turned back around and returned to the porch. Running his fingers through Daniel's hair, he kissed him. "Is it bad?"
"Yes and no. It's different."
Daniel scratched his head. "Seems more emotional than physical for some reason. Like when you walked away, I just wanted to curl up and cry."
Ryker looked at Hakan. "Mother can wait."
Hakan nodded his head in agreement. Thunder cracked overhead, and Hakan looked up as if listening. After a few moments, he grinned. "Father says asking questions isn't the only way to discover answers."
Ryker huffed. "Does Father Sky always talk in riddles?"
Hakan smiled affectionately. "Yes. He says it keeps me on my toes."
Daniel's stomach growled, surprising Ryker. "Wow, you're finally hungry?"
Daniel nodded. "Starving."
Hakan stood with Daniel still in his arms. "I made stew earlier. Does that sound good?"
Daniel nodded, and Hakan carried him into the house. Ryker made sure he stayed close to the two men. It was obvious that whatever was going on, it was easiest on Daniel if they moved as a unit.
The small cabin was nice. Ryker could tell that Hakan had built and furnished it by himself. The only piece of store-bought furniture he saw was the brown leather sofa.
Hakan set Daniel down on the handmade kitchen countertop, which was nothing more than a large slab of sanded lumber. He turned on the stove and gave the stew a couple of stirs.
Ryker used the opportunity to study Hakan from behind. He bit his lip as his gaze wandered from the broad shoulders to the tightly muscled ass. Licking his lips, he couldn't help but wonder what that ass would feel like in his hands.
Daniel giggled, snapping him out of his lustful thoughts. Ryker looked at the mischievous coyote shifter and grinned. He shrugged his shoulders, hands out to the sides. "Couldn't resist."
Daniel smiled knowingly. Hakan turned around and glanced from Ryker to Daniel. "What's going on?"
Ryker shook his head, too embarrassed to tell Hakan he'd been staring at his ass, but Daniel had no such trouble.
"Ryker likes the way you look."
One black brow rose on Hakan's chiseled face.
Ryker shrugged innocently. "Sorry."