“Don’t tell me what to do,” he whispered. He read the ranger’s name tag. “Dusty.”
“Talk to me. Why are you doing this?” Dusty asked carefully.
“Stop talking down to me like a child.”
Dusty growled. “I’m not doing that.”
“You are. You’re talking so slowly, as if scared I’ll just jump off.”
Dusty narrowed his eyes. “I’m not doing it on purpose. I’m fucking deaf, okay?”
Trace would have called Dusty on his bluff, except those words were laced with genuine hurt. When he looked again, he saw a tiny sign under Dusty’s name tag, which read Deaf Services Coordinator. He felt like a dick as his foot suddenly slipped on a rock. Trace fell off balance, about to fall over the cliff and plunge into the raging waters below, except Dusty blurred.
The rescue happened in mere seconds. One moment he felt nothing but air on his back, terror freezing every muscle in his body, and the next, he was in Dusty’s arms, far from the cliff. He became all too aware of powerful, muscled arms around his waist and his knees—that were still wobbling. He leaned in a little closer until Trace could regain his balance.
This shifter burned incredibly hot. He read somewhere that shifters had warmer body temperatures, but gripping Dusty’s biceps, it felt like he was touching heated steel. Thoughts of suicide fled, replaced by something else. A snarl, an actual snarl emerged from Dusty’s lips, freezing him in place and reminding Trace his rescuer wasn’t human.
“You can let go of me now,” he said, voice shaky. After Morgan, he couldn’t bear strangers touching him, but Dusty’s touch didn’t feel repulsive or intrusive.
Dusty studied him closely and he realized the ranger must be reading his lips. Dusty wasn’t born deaf, he realized.
“Not until I’m certain you’re no longer tempted to jump off,” the shifter said drily.
God, but their bodies touching this close made it hard to think. Trace wore layers of clothes, but how was it possible that he could still feel how warm Dusty was?
His dick pulsed in his jeans, a bad sign. Trace’s last relationship had been years ago, and Morgan hadn’t just stabbed him in the heart, but skewered him from the inside out. A year after his first piece sold for a five-figure sum, Morgan had reached out to him again, but Trace knew better.
Relationships were scary. If he opened his heart a little, people didn’t hesitate to take advantage. God. Why was he thinking about this anyway when a moment ago, he was debating what there was to live for and if anyone would miss his absence?
“I’m not going to jump,” he replied tersely.
This shifter was too distracting and made things worse by sniffing the side of his neck and suddenly licking at his racing pulse. Fear and excitement intermingled until he couldn’t understand what the hell was happening or why he was reacting this way to a stranger he’d just met.
“Lie,” the shifter said plainly.
At least Dusty stopped looking at his neck like it was a piece of steak. Any human with some sense would run away. Shifters were dangerous, especially the dominant males of their species, and there was no denying Dusty was that. Still, he was drawn to something about Dusty.
Like called to like and he’d already glimpsed Dusty’s wounded soul, a mirror to his own, perhaps.
“No. I mean it, at least I’m not going to kill myself today.”
Dusty gave him a look of distrust.
“Can you stop touching me? It’s distracting.”
“Distracting in a good or bad way?” Dusty took a step back but eyed the bulge in Trace’s jeans.
“Can you not look at my groin area either?”
The snarl and hiss made him jump.
“Don’t do this and that. I don’t answer well to demands, human,” Dusty said with a dangerous flash of sharp teeth.
“I can see that,” Trace said with a shaky laugh.
Dusty held out a hand. “Let’s take a walk. It might clear your head.”
Normally, Trace would refuse, tell the ranger to mind his own business, but he found himself nodding. Dusty lead him down the slope, strides sure and easy while Trace kept looking at his feet the entire time, making sure he wouldn’t trip over a rock or unseen roots. Was Dusty flirting with him?
No, that couldn’t be. Maybe it was protocol for all rangers to make sure park guests wouldn’t think about suicide again. For now, meeting kept the despair at bay, but he didn’t know how long that would last.
“What’s your name?” Dusty asked.
They finally stood in front of the river and he noticed the warning signs, telling hikers that beyond the river was territory reserved for the paranormal denizens of the town. Trace hadn’t even noticed the signs at first and felt a little foolish. No wonder he felt a pair of eyes watching him when he’d stood on that cliff.
“Trace Michaels,” he said. Sometimes Trace lied because people recognized the name of the town’s local celebrity, but Dusty’s eyes held no recognition.
“And what got you to thinking about ending your own life?”
“None of your business. I’m not about to pour the contents of my life to a stranger.”
Dusty didn’t push, merely shrugged. “I get it.”
“What do you get? Are you actually going to say you relate to me?”
“We have different reasons for wanting the easy way out.”
Trace narrowed his eyes. “What do you know?”
He gasped when Dusty spun him by the shoulder and growled into his face, pupils a dangerous shade of gold. Trace read somewhere that a shifter’s eyes changed color when intense emotions rode them.
“Better than you think, human.” Dusty fisted a handful of his shirt and he glimpsed the raw pain there. Trace felt like a dick. “I lost plenty of friends, people I care about in the war. Finally, when we were supposed to go home, it happened. A plane carrying bombs flew over our campsite, eradicating everything.”
Dusty looked far off, distracted, as if he were no longer there. Trace’s own personal problems felt so insignificant compared to what this man had gone through. Guilt rammed into him and he reached out, giving Dusty’s broad shoulder a squeeze.
“Hey,” he whispered.
“Help me,” he whispered, clutching at Dusty’s hand.
“With what, baby?”
“Forget, but please don’t think I’m using you or anything like that. I trust you, know deep down you wouldn’t hurt me, no matter how insane that sounds. I care about you. You’re important to me. That’s why I want you to be my first after him,” he whispered.
Dusty’s gaze turned intense, considering. “Never for a moment did I think you were using me. You’re special to me, too, Trace. You’re the man I’ve been searching for all my life.”
Trace didn’t want to ruin the moment in case he said the wrong thing, but Bowen’s words came back to him. Feeling bold, he whispered, “Your mate?”
Dusty looked surprised.
“Bowen, Bowen mentioned shifters mated for life.” He felt like an idiot for mentioning that. Had he jumped the gun? What if he made the wrong assumption?
Dusty rubbed at his thigh, a small smile on his lips. “You have no idea how pleased I am to hear that word from you, pet.”
He blushed, beginning to like that term of endearment.
“You are?” He had to confirm he hadn’t misread the situation.
“Yes, but you must know, I’m not exactly perfect. I’m a broken shifter. You heard about me nearly losing control a year ago.”
“I’m not scared,” he blurted. “I’m not going to run out on you either. So what? You think you’re flawed, but you’re not. You’re perfect in my eyes.”
Dusty gripped the back of his neck and pressed their foreheads together, breathing hard. “Fuck, can I be so lucky?”
“Have you considered that I might be the lucky one?”
“Sassy,” Dusty remarked. “I really like this wild side of you.”
However, Trace couldn’t deny Dusty made him feel a lot braver, eager to try new things he’d been terrified of before. This night alone, Dusty managed to lure him out of his cave and meet Dusty’s family, the most important people to Dusty.
Dusty held out a hand and he took it.
“Are we stopping?” he asked, apprehensive.
Dusty shook his head. “I don’t want our first time to be on the kitchen counter.”
“Bed’s this way.”
He led Dusty to his bed. It was a single. Would the two of them fit or would Dusty prefer to leave after? So many questions raced in his mind, silenced when Dusty gave him a gentle push so he sat on the edge of the bed. He thought shifters liked to fuck their partners on all fours, but he was wrong as he lay on his back, looking up at Dusty.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to make you feel so fucking good. You’ll feel like you’re flying,” Dusty said. The leopard shifter must have read the worry on his face.
“I’m scared of screwing this up but I want you so badly,” he confessed.
“We’ll go slow.” Dusty lifted Trace’s legs over his broad shoulders. Like this, Trace’s dick was exposed and he blushed. Dusty snarled. “Perfect.”
That word made his entire body warm up. Dusty had the lube with him. The shifter uncapped it and applied a generous amount on his finger before working more inside his hole. He groaned as Dusty pushed one finger in. It amazed him Dusty took so much time, preparing him where Morgan simply just took him and he’d felt nothing but hurt as he’d screamed himself raw until he lay there, taking it.
Dusty froze. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry. Thinking about Morgan,” he said hesitantly, and Dusty stopped. He knew the shifter was paying attention. Trace promised himself not to think about Morgan but he felt like he needed to get this off his chest. “You know, it’s ironic. Shifters have a reputation for being rough, ridden by their baser instincts, but Morgan was human. You, on the other hand, have been nothing but tender with me.”
Dusty leaned over and kissed him on the lips.
“You’re not mad?” he had to ask.
“I’m furious, not at you, but this fucker who hurt you.” Dusty took deep breaths. “I’m going to make this unforgettable so every time you think of sex, you’ll think of me, of us.”
“Us. I like that.”
“Yeah? Me, too.” Dusty slid his finger back into his puckered entrance again before adding a second. He moaned, not wanting to be anywhere else but here. Dusty began making twisting motions, eventually adding a third.
“You’re ready for me.” The leopard shifter decided.
He locked gazes with Dusty. “I trust you.”
“In case you want me to stop and I don’t catch your lips, tug or pull at me. I’ll stop instantly, okay?”
“Shit,” Dusty muttered. “Condoms?”
He shook his head. “I’m clean. I had myself tested after the attack, and I know shifters can’t catch anything.”
“That’s true, but I would have worn one to reassure you nonetheless.”
With no further obstacles between them, Dusty replaced his fingers with his dick. He felt Dusty’s slick cockhead, brushing against his asshole and gasped when Dusty began pushing in.
Like Dusty promised, the shifter didn’t rush, although he had a feeling it took all of Dusty’s self-control to slow down. Dusty was bigger than he’d imagined and it felt for a moment as if he were being split apart. He clenched his hands above the sheets, relieved when Dusty spread his hands over his, not restraining him but simply holding him.
“Breathe, pet. That’s it. You’re doing so good,” Dusty said, his voice calming him.
Once Dusty moved past the thick ring of muscles, it was easier to breathe. Finally, Dusty sheathed himself balls deep inside him.
“Wow,” he whispered. “You’re really in me.”
Dusty smiled. “You feel so fucking tight, pet, so amazing, but we’ve barely begun. It’s time I make you feel real good.”