Cavanaugh looked up through the trees, checking the light level. It had taken most of the day to find a vehicle, purchase all the equipment they needed, and drive the seven hours up the track. In just over an hour, it would be dark. They would have to stop and make camp. Near to the river would be the best place to set up the small tent he had purchased and start a fire, but also the most dangerous. Countless predators made the forest their home, big cats among them, and many of them hunted along the water where their prey would come to drink.
He could smell them in the area. Tigers. Leopards. Even clouded leopards. None of them would take well to him and Eloise being in their territory. The tigers were the biggest threat. They had been known to take human prey in the past, when times had been tough for them, and had spread their territory far and wide, even up to altitude in places, clashing with the territory of the snow leopards.
The trail ended two miles deeper into the forest, at a large pool that glittered at the base of a short waterfall. This was as far as the locals went, coming here to try their luck fishing. He had met a few once, years ago, on his way down from the mountain. They hadn’t seemed surprised to see someone coming from a direction where nature prevailed and no humans ventured. He suspected that the legends the locals believed in were based on his pride and those legends were woven deep into their traditions and religion. They had known what he was, but they respected him and his kind.
Eloise distracted him from his memories by clambering up the enormous boulders that formed a wall ahead of him. He stared at her backside, cupped tightly in her trekking trousers. He might have purchased a size smaller than he should have, but he had known she wouldn’t dare complain about how tight and revealing they were. It was the first time he felt that being an alpha was a perk, not a punishment.
She leaped to another boulder and scaled the next one with ease.
Snow leopard shifters were agile climbers in both of their forms, and he had always loved climbing with her, scaling the dangerous mountains that surrounded the village in the hidden valley high above this forest. There were ledges on the mountains that offered the most incredible and breathtaking views across the Himalayas.
Her boot slipped and he was behind her in a single leap, his hands pressed against her backside to stop her from falling. She gasped and turned wide honey-coloured eyes on him, a blush climbing her cheeks before she recovered and stole her body from his grasp, ruining the moment. She hauled herself back towards the rocks and up them, away from his hands.
Hands that ached to touch her again, to explore every inch of her at his leisure, together with his lips.
“Damned new boots,” she muttered and was more careful as she clambered up the rocks, placing each foot with caution.
When she had reached the top, she looked back down at him. He grinned and ascended the treacherous rocks in a few leaps, using his superior strength and agility to make easy work of it. She huffed under her breath and stalked on ahead of him, evidently not impressed by his display of manliness.
Cavanaugh shrugged and followed her, his senses split between her and their surroundings now that they were heading deeper into the forest, away from the farmland and the humans.
He closed the distance between them as the terrain turned hilly, the ascents and descents steep and muddy, making it tough going as they continued to track the river through the forest covering the valley. He helped her as much as she would let him, growing increasingly frustrated whenever she refused to accept his assistance. Back in the day, she had never hesitated to take his hand when he had offered it or his help whenever she had slipped. Was it because she could only see him as her pride’s alpha now?
He wasn’t that male, not when he was with her.
He was just Cavanaugh.
The air grew humid as they followed the river. The evening light danced across its rippling surface, making it look like liquid gold. He drew in a deep breath, catching the scents of the animals and all the different plants and trees, refreshing his memory of this place he had called home for a century.
It was beautiful, but tarnished now.
His reason for being here, and everything that had happened, had ruined it for him, stealing something away from the stunning scenery. The mountains called to him, rising high above the forest that surrounded him, their snow-capped peaks piercing the golden sky, but he no longer felt the deep need to answer that call, to rush up to their pinnacles and see the world as they did.
He was happier down here, in the forest.
Truthfully, he was happier miles away from this place that no longer felt like his home.
Eloise looked back at him, the sight of her soothing him and chasing away his heavy thoughts.
The forest drew back from the river ahead of them, leaving a wide earth bank on their side that gave way to pebbles and then rounded stones by the water.
“We can camp ahead.” Cavanaugh scanned the forest with his senses. “I’ve camped here a few times.”
It smelled different now though. The territories of the cats that made this area their home had shifted.
Movement across the river caught his eye and his gaze snapped there, his senses on high alert. A small leopard cat broke cover, spotted him and dashed back into the scrub. They weren’t much bigger than a domestic cat and were definitely not a threat to him and Eloise.
She set her backpack down in the middle of the dirt bank and rubbed her shoulders. He would do that for her if she asked. Gods, he would do it for her if she didn’t ask. He would do anything to get his hands back on her and break down the damned wall that stood between them. He dumped his backpack and stretched, a sliver of pleasure flowing through him as he loosened up. He wasn’t looking forward to the ascent ahead of him, not with so much gear. He would have to stash most of it somewhere rather than trying to carry it up the mountain path.
His gaze drifted along the wide slow river, hopping from boulder to boulder that dotted the water, and then up over the trees to the mountains in the distance ahead of him.
He was running out of time.
There had to be a way to get Eloise to look at him and see him as the man she had known all her life, the one who belonged to her if she would have him, and not her alpha.
He sighed and set the tent up as he pondered that, and then left her to handle the fire as he looked at the river. It had been a hard trek and he needed to wash up before settling down to a delicious meal of protein bars. The crystal clear water was just too inviting to resist.
He wanted to cool off with a swim.
If all went to plan, Eloise would join him.