The five hundred pound Bengal paced the lab’s length, covering the distance between window and door in four strides, bumping against work tables and file cabinets when he turned. His rigid tail sliced the air like a rudder, straight, stiff, save for the agitated twitch at the tip.
Ean paced. Ean twitched. Adam tapped.
The steady click of his mouse marked passing minutes like a clock, reminding Adam how little time he had to waste and how far he had to go. The screen flickered as, one by one, pages of DNA diagrams displayed.
The effect on the tiger was like a dripping faucet.
Pushed to his limit, Ean padded up to Adam. Yellow eyes blazed. Nostrils flared. A soft growl rumbled in his chest.
“I’m sorry! We can’t lie to her, Ean,” Adam said.
With a huff, Ean sat back on his haunches. Paws bigger than Adam’s head swiped the air.
“We can’t deceive her about something that will alter all of our lives so completely.”
Sickle-like claws sheathed and unsheathed. Teeth gnashed. That great tongue flicked out, then coiled in like a whip.
Adam ignored him.
Ean rose to as much of his ten-foot length as possible in the cramped quarters. His head nearly scraped the rafters. With a shimmer and ripple in the air around him, he shifted from full-grown tiger to six feet and two hundred pounds of agitated, naked man. He turned away and stomped across the room.
“Stop that clicking or you’ll be eating that mouse.”
Adam ignored the threat. This situation demanded logic, not belligerence and bluster.
Ean shook a tousled mane of hair, a subtle blend of all the tiger’s colors—red and gold and brown. He growled at the tangled clothes he’d kicked under the chair in his pacing. “If you tell Marie the truth, she’ll bolt,” Ean rumbled. “You said as much yourself.”
Tension sparked the air around Ean. He snapped the wrinkles from his pants and yanked them on. His eyes had gone back to the shifter’s mix of blue and gold, a swirl of color as hypnotic in the man as the black-slitted gold had been in the tiger. Temper still blazed in them.
“You can’t let this one chance for what she most wants slip away from her.”
And yet, Marie’s desire would have to be courted. Even with the existence of a species and their bloodlines resting on her compliance, Ean would not force her any more than Adam would.
But wasn’t deception a form of force?
Ean threw himself into a chair. Charts that mapped their destiny fluttered briefly in response to the mental anxiety pulsing like an aura around him.
“Easy,” Adam cautioned. “She may not know her nature but she’s all that we are and she’ll pick up your tension if you don’t get yourself under control.”
Ean huffed and picked up the scattered charts. Thin white sheets quivered in his hands.
Adam leaned back in his chair, studying the code. His finger tapped away, flipping through screens. The codes weren’t going to change any more than the indicators on the fertility charts Ean had in his hands.
“Six days left,” Ean mumbled. The tension around him dimmed as he leaned back, settling into thought, tapping one finger against his lips. Desperation flushed Ean’s face and Adam knew it wouldn’t be a full minute before he erupted again.
It was fifteen mouse clicks.
“If we don’t convince her now, it’s another seven years before she cycles again. It’s too close to her transition. If not now, it might be never.”
“For bonding we need trust, Ean.”
Trust took time. Adam trusted Ean with the most precious thing to come into his life. And that was why
Adam had sought Ean. That was why he sent out his call to a friend secluded in a remote corner of India. That was why time had gotten away from them. Now there was too little left to gain the trust they needed from Marie before time ran out altogether.
Adam pushed the mouse aside. His fingers curved around a picture at the corner of his desk instead. He stroked the smooth wood frame with his finger. He’d snapped that picture of her by the river. She’d been perched on a rock, her head tipped back, lost in the music and mood of the water. The lens had captured her surprise when he appeared, a wide-eyed softness laced with sorrow. Had she been wishing even then for the child she believed she could never have? He ran his finger over her coppery curls, traced the lush lines of her figure and wished he could banish the sadness from those haunted blue eyes.
He set the picture carefully in its place next to the computer monitor. Marie looked at him from the frame; their future looked out from the computer screen, mapped in black and white. All that remained was a choice. Which path?
He pushed back from the desk, back from the computer, back from the situation that trapped the three of them. He rose and went to the window, massaging the kink in his neck. Outside the leaves fell in sporadic waves. Another week and they would be gone and so would his chance to give her the child her arms ached to hold.
“I would do anything to give her this,” he said. “But how do I make love to her with a lie poisoning what should be precious?”
“I’m not saying lie, Adam.” He heard the chair scrape and could feel Ean moving behind him. “I’m saying don’t give her every little detail up front.”
He stood beside Adam and they both gazed at the brilliant blaze of autumn. Ean’s tone softened, coaxed. “We tell her enough to gain cooperation. She doesn’t need details until after she conceives.”
Adam started to turn away and paused where the light cast a reflection of the two of them standing together. How could they soften the intimidation factor their combined presence created? Adam didn’t have Ean’s bulk, but he was just as tall. His hair jet black, his eyes the quicksilver of a shifter who had matured to the magus level.
Maturity didn’t equal wisdom in all things and in this instance he couldn’t find objectivity. He wondered if Ean had. Ean’s eyes held conviction that Adam’s heart couldn’t find.
Was this, after all, his choice to make?