Exhilarated from my long run, I stalked along the edge of the forest and scanned the valley basin for signs of movement. As I neared the waterfall, a choir of peeping regaila bugs died away. I slipped into the teal water and dove through the cascade. There, I waited for him, as I’d done every evening for two months. So far, the water had concealed my scent from his predatory nose, and the constant thunder of the waterfalls had overpowered the frantic thumping of my heart.
If my father knew about my ventures into Brendi territory, he’d have beaten me. He’d erected a wall around the entire village to keep the Alacians in and the Brendi out. I couldn’t understand how he could hate someone so beautiful, so majestic.
Wearing only a T-shirt and panties, I clung to the rock, shivering not from the cool mist tickling my skin but from anticipation of catching another secret glimpse of my favorite predator. My abdomen throbbed as the time for his arrival drew near. He always appeared at twilight, at the moment when the last of the three suns dipped its fiery head behind the distant mountain peaks.
I edged closer to the gap between the falls and the rock wall and peered at the jagged tree line. Against the growing darkness, pixies with phosphorescent blue wings danced amongst the corkscrew grass. Concentrating on the simple act of breathing, I watched the spot where I usually saw him first.
Minutes ticked past. My heart fell along with the last drop of sunlight. He’s not coming. Tears lingered on my lashes before they trickled down my cheeks. I took a deep breath and exhaled. Without the object of my fantasies to keep the real predators away, they would soon arrive. The window through which I might safely return to my village, scale the wall, and sneak back to my hut was closing.
After checking for a sign of him once more and finding nothing but still shadows, I jumped into the pool and swam through the waterfall. The cold water jolted me to the point of pain. I surfaced with a gasp near the eastern bank, blinking water from my eyes and rubbing goose bumps from my arms. The sight before me hardened my muscles to stone, my thoughts torn between joy of seeing him again and fear of what he might do.
The giant cheetah stared at me from the shore a few feet away, his golden coat reflecting a rosy sheen from the sunset. His intense, amber gaze locked onto me as he crouched and sniffed the air.
I stared back at the Brendi with wide eyes. My heart tried to climb my throat, but I swallowed it down and willed my pulse to slow. “I-I’m sorry,” I said in a small voice. “I didn’t mean to trespass in your valley.” Would he hurt me? I knew little of the Brendi, only that we didn’t hunt on their lands or interact with them for any reason. The Alacian council had forbidden it.
The air around the mammoth cat ignited with sparks, the crackling sound rising in volume. I thrashed in the water to put some distance between us, but my flailing did little more than dunk me under the surface. Water spilled into my mouth. As I surfaced, I coughed and sputtered to clear it, forcing my body still.
The cheetah stood on his hind feet, a silver halo of light bursting free of his flesh. I held out a hand to tame the brightness as his bones popped and realigned, his skin twisting and bulging to accommodate the changes. He groaned a deep, rumbling growl as his fur retreated into his skin. His neck cracked, and he rolled his shoulders.
The light shining from within his skin faded away. He stood tall and naked before me, shadow adding depth to his muscular build. His skin remained the same golden hue as his coat had been, decorated with black tribal tattoos mimicking his cheetah markings. Black streaks started from the inner corners of his dark-rimmed eyes, continued down his cheeks, and disappeared beneath his chin. Black spots dotted his chest and shoulders, growing smaller as they neared his firm abdomen. His blond, wind-tousled hair curled up a little at the ends. The sight left me gaping—as it always did.
“The forest does not belong to the Brendi alone.”
The depth of his voice startled me. I sipped in a breath and held it for a moment, my head swimming with dizziness in his presence. He crouched at the edge of the pool and dipped his finger into the water, drawing circles on the surface. A smile broke through the tension and warmed me. His elongated cat fangs were visible at the edges of his full lips. My gaze drank in the tight lines of his body, the muscular curve of his backside, his swelling cock. I licked my lips as I imagined him piercing me.
“You desire me. I can scent it on the wind.” He drew in a breath and licked his lips. “I have been waiting for your courage to bring you to me, but I have grown tired of our little game.”
The moisture evaporated from my mouth. He could smell me, even through the water?
The pool splashed in front of me. Swallowing a scream, I kicked and cupped the water with my hands to get away. Uncertain where he’d gone, I stopped, nearly hyperventilating, and scanned the rippled surface. Moments passed, long enough for the water to flatten as much as the current from the waterfall allowed.
When I made a move toward land, he popped up behind me and slipped his hands around my stomach. I squealed and struggled, but his incredible strength kept me against him.
“Do not fear me, Alacian. I will not harm you.” He pressed his lips against my ear, a purr grumbling deep in his chest. “I am Ren of the Creed Tribe.”
The tension eased out of my muscles as his sweet breath fanned across my cheek. Despite my uncertainty, his touch sent jolts of pleasure through my center and raised tingles in nerve endings I never knew existed. The remaining shreds of fear only heightened the sensations.
“I’m Keeta of T’Lis,” I said between ragged breaths.
Fascinated by the fine coating of silky hairs on his skin, I traced the definition of his arms with my fingertips and savored the hard landscape pressed against my back. I’d imagined what it would be like to be in his arms every waking moment since I’d first seen him…and stroked the need between my legs in every moment of solitude. No fantasy or self-induced pleasure matched the simple ecstasy of his touch.
In a dizzying blur, he spun me until I faced him. Teal droplets of water beaded on his face and shoulders, forming tiny rivers along his chest as it descended. The black streaks below his eyes gave him a sad appearance. I reached out and caressed his markings with my fingertips, marveling at the softness beneath my touch.
Ren’s purring deepened. He hooked his hands behind my knees and jerked my legs around his waist with a grunt, pinning his solid shaft between us. I cried out at the sudden exposure, only my thin, spidersilk panties separating me from what I most wanted, what I’d been dreaming of for months. His touch awakened a primal hunger in me. I’d never known such desire before I caught a glimpse of his regal form painted with moonlight.
“It’s forbidden.” The words of the elders haunted my thoughts as Ren pushed us toward the shore. “I’m not to mate with a Brendi, no matter how beautiful you are, no matter how much I might want you.”
“I am bound by no such rule.” His arms tightened around me as he edged us closer to the grass. “We are creatures of the same Goddess, roaming the same lands, sleeping beneath the same sky. Our spirits call to one another, and I feel your agony. You are in estrus. Your body begs for me to soothe your ache; though tell me to leave, and I will obey.”
© Stella Berkley
For Now and Always
Author: Stella Berkley
Publisher: Cobblestone Press
Genre: Erotic Romance
Keeta doesn’t understand why her father despises the Brendi, a clan of shape-shifting cheetahs who inhabit the valley beyond their village, nor why he treats her like a stain on his precious council robe. When she gives in to her forbidden desire for Ren, a majestic Brendi she’s been sneaking out for months to watch, the truth she unearths about her mother’s death will devastate her.
That Ren knew about Keeta’s past and didn’t reveal it drives her away. If she can survive her heartbreak and forgive Ren, she’ll discover the love and belonging she’s always wanted.