Cavanaugh tossed all the gear he had bought into the open back of the battered Jeep Wrangler he had purchased from a local at a very steep price. He didn’t care about how it looked as long as it survived the run up to the end of the dirt track where their trek through the forest would begin, and back again. He walked around to the driver’s side of the black vehicle, opened the door and pulled himself up onto the seat.
Eloise looked across at him and he handed her the plastic bag with the gear he had bought for her in it. She took it and peered into the bag. It wasn’t much, just a lightweight dark grey fleece and a pair of beige trekking trousers, but it managed to get a smile out of her. He couldn’t wait to see her face when she saw the pair of boots he had placed into the back of the vehicle. He hadn’t failed to notice hers were on their last legs.
He turned on the engine, clicked his seatbelt into place and pulled out onto the quiet road.
The drive was long, taking several hours just to reach the end of the paved road where it gave way to little more than a mud track. The scenery was stunning though, on display all around him in the open top Jeep, and Eloise seemed intent on taking it in, avoiding looking at him.
He stared ahead of him, towards the distant snow-capped mountains that protected their village, his mind running back over everything that Eloise had told him.
Cavanaugh flexed his fingers around the steering wheel and glared at the mountains, part of him itching to reach them and Stellan. The male was going to pay for the things he had done, and for the disgusting things he had planned too. Cavanaugh had tried to shed the sense of responsibility he felt for the pride, but as the oldest son of his father, he’d had it beaten into him since birth.
When Eloise had announced her intention to leave with or without him, she had known what she was doing. She had made it impossible for him to do anything other than go with her. He hadn’t been able to let her return alone, knowing what awaited her. He hadn’t been able to delay her either, knowing what would happen to his kin if he did.
He had spent the entirety of the two plane journeys, including the dangerous landing into Paro airport, thinking about what she was asking him to do and planning it all out. He had no interest in being the alpha. The one thing he had craved in his life wasn’t power or standing. It was her. She was the only thing that mattered to him.
This journey was his chance to convince her that she was his mate.
His plan was simple. He intended to let the remaining days pass somehow so he entered the village as a free man. He would straighten everything out with Eloise, do right by his kin as their strongest male by eliminating Stellan, and then he would go back to Underworld.
Hopefully with her.
It sounded simple anyway. He had a feeling that it was going to be anything but that.
It was late afternoon by the time they reached the end of the mud track. Cavanaugh parked the vehicle on the side of the road, turned off the engine and stepped out. Eloise opened the passenger side door and stepped down onto the mud, muttering something to herself. He rounded the back of the vehicle, pulled out the cardboard box that contained the trekking boots he had bought for her, and held it out to her. She eyed it with surprise and then smiled when she opened it.
“You can’t trek through the forest in those,” he said with a smile in the direction of her old boots and she nodded.
“Thank you.” She toed off her boots one by one and he somehow found the strength to turn his back to give her some privacy as she changed into her new clothes.
Cavanaugh busied himself with putting everything he had purchased into their backpacks. He had ensured they had everything they needed, from a canteen to climbing ropes and harnesses, to a GPS. He had even purchased protein bars. As much as he hated them, they were a necessity. They couldn’t hunt during the trek and both of them needed to keep their strength up.
Eloise rounded the back of the vehicle and took the pack he handed her, slipping it onto her shoulders. She tugged the straps to get it comfortable while he put on his own larger pack. He pocketed the keys to the vehicle and set off, following the narrow path that led from the end of the dirt road down into the forest.
They had walked for almost half a mile before Cavanaugh gave in to the constant unsettling feeling in his gut and stepped to one side on the track to allow Eloise past him. He didn’t like her walking behind him where he couldn’t keep an eye on her and make sure that she was safe. She looked at him, slowing her approach and he jerked his chin to his left, silently telling her to take the lead. His gaze raked over her as she walked past him, taking in every inch of her.
She looked better now, less haunted and had more colour, but she still barely resembled the woman he had left five years ago.
He had insisted on feeding her up, despite her protests, ensuring she’d had a good breakfast at Underworld before taking a nap there. At the airport in London, he had managed to get her to eat a large dinner with him, and then a further meal when they had reached New Delhi. He had even convinced her to sleep on the planes. She had surprised him by sleeping through the landing in Paro and he had been loath to wake her when they’d had to disembark. How long had it been since she had gotten some good sleep?
She still looked as if she needed about a week of it.
Maybe offering her a sightseeing trip around London had been the wrong approach when he had been attempting to stall her. He should have offered her his bed for a week of uninterrupted sleep.
Cavanaugh followed her through the forest, his gaze locked on her, taking in her curves beneath her dark grey fleece and her beige trousers. The more he studied her, the fiercer he burned with a need to step up behind her, place his hands on her hips, and draw her back against him. He wanted to hold her, and feel her in his arms, back with him again.
Safe with him.
That single word sent his mind down darker paths. The thought that Stellan might have already hurt her, might be responsible for the scarring on her wrists, drove him mad with a need to track the bastard down and beat him into a bloody pulp. But Stellan wasn’t the only one to blame. No matter how much he wanted to pin it all on the other male, most of the blame for what Eloise had been through rested on his own shoulders.
Terrible things had happened to her because he had left the pride. The mistakes he had made had resulted in her being hurt. It sat in his stomach like a lead weight, dragging him down. He wanted to ask her again what had happened to her, but he feared he wouldn’t be strong enough to hear her answer.
He wanted to apologise to her, but he wasn’t sure what to say. Nothing he said could erase what she had been through. He had to try though.
“Eloise,” he started and faltered when she looked back at him, her honey-coloured eyes bright in the evening light and wide with curiosity. He scrubbed the back of his neck with his left hand and his courage failed him. “Nothing.”
A frown flickered on her brow and she looked as if she might question him, and then she turned away from him again, giving him a view of her backside that proved to be just the distraction he needed from his dark thoughts.
She began up an incline and banked left, following a trail that tracked the river to her right.
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.