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Duncan nearly shut the door, but the woman stirred, and the same golden eyes of the cheetah stared back at him. Fear flashed in her gaze, and she gathered her arms protectively around herself, feebly trying to shield her nudity. He could see her shiver, and blood trickled down her leg.
Her discomfort moved him to action, despite the argument he waged with his sanity.
"Holy mother of God," he muttered as he knelt beside her.
She shrank away from him, and a sound of fright rushed past her lips.
"Shhh, I won't hurt you," he soothed. He reached for her, to touch her, to offer comfort in some way.
She tensed when his hand rested on her shoulder, but she didn't flinch away. Wide, frightened eyes regarded him questioningly.
"I won't hurt you," he said again. "I'm here to help you."
She relaxed the smallest fraction underneath his fingertips, and the fear in her expression turned to pain.
"Who are you?" he murmured. What are you?
Her mouth opened, and she licked her lips. A hoarse sound rose from her throat, and she frowned. Her hand gripped her neck and massaged. She seemed to have difficulty in speaking.
He felt sudden guilt for having placed her in the mudroom. It was cold and uncomfortable, but Christ, he'd thought she was a cheetah. She was a cheetah. Cheetahs had fur. This woman was naked. Very naked. And very beautiful.
"Don't speak," he said firmly when she opened her mouth again. "Let me get you into the living room where you can warm up."
"The arrow," she whispered. "It has to come out."
Her low voice slid over him with a shock. He couldn't place the accent.
He curled his arms underneath her body andcarefully lifted her, trying hard not to jar her wound. A small moan leaked from her lips as he shifted her against his chest.
She didn't respond. Just let her head sag against his shoulder.
He carried her into the living room and marveled at the fact that she probably weighed more as a cat than she did as a human--was she human? Could you call someone who had been a cheetah just an hour ago a human?
"You can stretch out on the couch in front of the fire. I'll get you something to cover up with and take a look at that arrow."
The two simple words sounded exceedingly heartfelt, and he could feel the ache behind them. With extreme care, he laid her on her side on the couch then reached for the afghan hanging over the back. Her skin was ice-cold to the touch. Again he felt a pang of guilt for having stuffed her in the mudroom.
He arranged the blanket over the upper part of her body and over her behind to give her enough modesty while keeping the material a good six inches from the arrow. She clutched the ends of the afghan and pulled it tighter to her chin.
Without thought, he ran his hand through her hair, pushing it from her face to behind her ear. She was beautiful. Stunningly so.
And she was a cheetah.
He yanked his hand away and rocked back on his heels. There would be time to have his meltdown later. Maybe after he'd gotten the arrow out of her leg. Jesus. How was he going to get it out without filleting her leg? He needed a doctor, but how on earth was he going to explain how she got the arrow? Not to mention if he took her to the hospital and they did blood work, wouldn't it come back all funky because she wasn't human?
He could just see the tabloid headlines.
"What are you?" he asked softly. "Where did you come from?"
The bronze colored flecks in her eyes sharpened and glowed as she gazed at him. He could see the cheetah in her, knew it was there no matter how crazy it sounded.
She searched his face as if trying to decide whether she could trust him. Evidently she decided she couldn't because uncertainty flooded her eyes, and she looked down. Interesting. The cheetah trusted him. The woman did not.
"My name is Aliyah Carver," she said.
Well, that was something he supposed.
He glanced down at the wound in her leg. The broadhead was completely embedded in her thigh, probably resting against bone. No way for him to push it through, not that he would. Retracting it would be damn near impossible.
"Pull it out," she said calmly. "I will heal."
"Goddamn, do you have any idea how much that'll hurt?"
She nodded solemnly. "There is no other way. I can't go to a hospital. It isn't necessary. Once the arrow is removed, my wound will heal rapidly."
She relayed it so matter-of-factly. Clearly she had no idea how much a broadhead would make her bleed. And the pain. Jesus. He wasn't the only one having a serious issue with reality.
"I know you don't understand, but you have to trust me. The wound will heal. The arrow must be removed quickly."
"Like you trust me?" he asked pointedly.
She flushed. "I can't afford to trust anyone."
That was fair. If he were a cheetah, he guessed there wouldn't be a whole lot of people he could trust with that little tidbit.
He rubbed a hand through his hair. "Do you want a drink at least?" Hell, he could use one.
"Alcohol will impede the healing. I need my senses about me. It will require my full concentration."
He shook his head, a little sick at what he must do.
"Just do it," she begged. "Don't make me wait. The anticipation is the worst part."
He nodded grimly. If she could be so stoic then he damn sure wasn't going to be a pussy. He got to his feet and stared down at the arrow. When he glanced back to her, he saw she'd closed her eyes, strain etched into her forehead.
He would do this quickly. There was no need for her to suffer the agony of waiting. He reached down and grasped the arrow just below the fletching. He sucked in a deep breath. His nerves screamed like a girl.
Not wanting to delay any longer, he yanked with all his strength. Her cry ripped right through his gut as he stumbled backward, the arrow in his hand. Blood poured from the wound, spilling onto his hardwood floor.
He dropped the arrow and fell to his knees in front of her. He yanked the afghan down to press on the wound in an effort to staunch the flow of blood. Goddamn it, he'd known this was a bad idea. How the hell was he going to explain a woman bleeding to death in his living room?
A low sob reached his ears. He reached for her, dragging her into his arms. "God, I'm sorry."
She buried her face in his neck and held on tightly as pain quivered through her body. Then as if remembering the blood, she rocketed from his arms and scrambled to a sitting position.
"I'm sorry. I'm getting blood everywhere. All over your floor."
He saw the paleness of her face, the evidence of shock in her eyes. Very gently, he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back down.
He gingerly pulled the blanket back so he could assess the damage. Amazingly the blood had slowed to a small trickle. The flesh was open, raw and red. Angry. But the arrow should have caused a hell of a lot more injury. It was designed to inflict as much damage coming out as it did going in.
"Stay right here. I'll get some towels and something for you to wear," he said.
She looked down, as if just remembering her nudity. A bright blush worked across her smooth skin, and she reached self-consciously for the afghan that had fallen away and pulled it higher around her body.
It was a sight he wasn't likely to forget. A beautiful, vulnerable woman with tawny hair and golden eyes curled on his couch with a blood-soaked blanket wrapped around her like a shield. Hell of an image.
Duncan left the living room in need of a stiff drink. Maybe two. He prided himself on being a highly logical, no bullshit law enforcement professional. He didn't believe in hocus-pocus woo woo crap. But he knew two things. One, he'd locked a cheetah with an arrow in her haunch in his mudroom. Two, when he'd walked back in, a naked woman, also with an arrow in her thigh, had replaced the cheetah.
As much as he'd love to tell himself he was way overworked, in need of a break, and that he was highly delusional, he knew it wasn't the case. He was as sane as the next person.
And if he wasn't insane, then he had to face the fact that the world as he knew it didn't exist.
He hurriedly collected a first aid kit, towels, and one of his T-shirts. When he returned, she was lying on the couch, eyes closed, her breath coming in shallow bursts.
"Aliyah," he said softly.
Her eyes opened and once again, he was struck by the beauty of her gaze, how mesmerizing those golden eyes were.
He knelt in front of the couch and gently pulled the blanket away from her wound. Already it was smaller, but it still looked angry. Blood oozed at a much slower rate, but she was still losing too much.
He set to work bandaging the wound and did his best to ignore the curves of her body, tempting though they were. When he'd finished, he handed her the T-shirt. "Do you need help getting it on?" he asked.
She shook her head and pushed herself to sitting position. He stood and discreetly turned his back, though he'd already gotten a view of her breasts.
Was he honest to god lusting over a cat? No, she wasn't just a cat. She was a woman. A breathtakingly gorgeous woman.
Who happened to also be a cat.
Her husky voice tingled over his ears, and he slowly turned back around. She sat on the couch, leaning away from her injured leg. Her hair was tousled, just the right amount of "messed up" to look incredibly sexy. Her eyes held an almost drugged look, a mixture of incredible fatigue and shock, he was sure. Wearing his T-shirt as she was, she looked just like a woman might after an afternoon of making love.
"Aliyah ... we need to talk."
Worry flashed in her eyes. He didn't want her to be afraid of him, but he wasn't sure how to offer her reassurance that he had no intention of hurting her, or betraying her secret. It wasn't like he could go announcing to the world that he harbored a cheetah-woman. No one would believe him, and he could kiss his job as sheriff good-bye.
Her lips parted then closed again in agitation. "You deserve answers. I know."
She closed her eyes and pushed her hand through her long hair. "Ask then. I'll try to answer what I can."
He stuffed his hands in his jeans pocket and squared his shoulders. "Let's start with you telling me who you are--what you are."