They swam to shore and Zachary made quick work of conjuring up dry clothes for both of them.
“I have to admit, that’s a handy power to have.” Annabelle smiled as she took the shorts and tank top he gave her. “No underwear?”
“Are you kidding?” Zachary winked. “That’s just one more piece of clothing I’ll have to take off you when we get back to the house.”
They dressed in silence and he noticed her studying him closely.
“This is nuts,” she said finally. Annabelle ran her hands through her long hair. “We’re not married, Zachary, and we’re not staying together.”
“What?” The word was barely audible. Zachary stopped dead in his tracks like she’d punched him in the face. “I thought—”
“You said it yourself.” Her eyes filled. “If you stay with me, you’ll lose your powers.”
“I’ll lose them anyway,” he fired back. Now it was her turn to look stunned. Zachary’s mouth set in a tight line as he stalked toward her. “If an Amoveo doesn’t find their mate by the age of thirty, then we lose our abilities. So I’m fucked either way, but you know what?” He got right in her personal space and held her challenging stare with his. “I don’t give a shit if I lose my Amoveo abilities. Hell, I’m going to lose them no matter what I do. I can live out my life as a human, and the idea of it doesn’t even bother me that much. But you know what I don’t want to do?” he shouted. “What would be totally unacceptable? Living the rest of my life without you, Annabelle. It’s crazy. I know. And the look on your face only proves my point.”
“What are you saying?” she asked quietly, hugging her arms around herself, as if bracing from a chill. “That you…love me?”
“No. Yes…I don’t know.” Zach pressed his lips together and let out a slow breath. “I don’t know if I’m in love with you, but I sure as hell feel like I’m on my way, and I’m pretty sure you are too, so don’t bother telling me you’re not.”
“We don’t even know each other,” she whispered.
“I know enough.” He gathered her hands in his, and something in his chest squeezed when it was clear she was doing her best not to look at him. “I know that I would like to spend the rest of my life finding out everything there is to know about you—everything there is to discover about each other.”
“No, you wouldn’t, Zachary. If you really knew who I am, then you wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”
His first inclination was to be furious with her, but when he watched her fiddle with the bracelet again and nibble her lower lip, he knew this wasn’t about him at all.
“Annabelle,” Zachary whispered and placed a kiss at the corner of her mouth. While one hand cradled her face, the other slid beneath the hem of her shorts and he trailed his fingers along the curve of her ass. “Tell me your real name.”
She stilled against him and her eyes widened with the cold chill of fear. Annabelle attempted to slip out of his embrace, but he held her in his arms, unwilling to let her run from him again. Her arms were pinned between their bodies and her fingers curled around his T-shirt, which made it feel like she was pushing him away and pulling him closer at the same time.
Push and pull.
“What are you afraid of?” He lifted his head and his eyes shifted, reflecting his frustration. “Haven’t I shown you that I would never do anything to hurt you? Why won’t you trust me and tell me the truth? I can help you, Annabelle. Whoever it is that you’re running from is no match for an Amoveo. I promise that I can keep you safe.”
“No.” She looked at her hands and shook her head, the tears falling freely. “You can’t. And it’s not me I’m worried about…it’s you.”
She was worried about him? Of course. How could he be so fucking stupid? These people she was running from were obviously dangerous, and he hadn’t given her any reason to think he could fight them. All he did was conjure up some clothing and dream-walk with her. Not exactly proof of being a badass. It was time for him to show Annabelle who he truly was and put her fears to rest. Maybe then, once she saw his true nature, she’d feel better about trusting him.
“You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a Guardian.” He wiped away a tear with the pad of his thumb and let out a short laugh when she gave him a what-the-hell-is-that kind of look. “Essentially, I work as a bodyguard and security for the Amoveo royal family. Aside from being handy with a gun, I’m also trained in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. At the risk of sounding immodest, I can kick ass with the best of them.”
“It’s not that, Zachary. I—”
Her words were cut short when Zachary’s mouth covered hers in a savage kiss. His tongue demanded entrance and tangled with hers, stealing the breath from both of them. He held her head in his hands, taking full charge and silencing her doubts. Breaking the kiss, he suckled her lower lip and rested his forehead against hers. She sagged against him and her hands covered his as they held her cheeks.
Between heavy breaths he whispered, “There’s still one part of me you haven’t seen, and if I want you to trust me, then I should show you the same courtesy.”
Zachary kissed the tip of her nose and stepped back, significantly increasing the distance between them. Wind whipped around them and the sky darkened as one of those sudden tropical thunderstorms started to roll in. He held out his arms, tilted his face to the darkening sky, and whispered, “Verto.”
A violent rush of static covered Zachary, and his skin hummed with electricity as the surge of the shift fired through him. His body undulated and stretched as the change took place, and within seconds, Zachary had shifted into the form of his lion, emitting a ground-rumbling roar. The instant he shifted, thunder rolled around them and lightning seared across the sky as the wind picked up.
Landing on all fours, Zachary stood proudly before Annabelle and held his head high. Her hands covered her mouth, and wide green eyes stared at him with a combination of shock and awe. To his great relief, she didn’t run away or scream in terror; instead, she stepped toward him. Her long hair, still damp from their excursion in the lagoon, fluttered around her in the air with the gusts of wind, but she seemed oblivious to everything except him.
This is who I am, Annabelle. His mind touched hers gently, not wanting to push too hard and yet knowing he had to. He took a few steps closer, and when he was only about a foot away from her, he stopped and lowered his head in deference to her. Thunder rattled around them and the palm trees swayed in the wind. I am Zachary McKenna, a Guardian from the Lion Clan, and I am your mate—if you’ll have me. I would die to protect you.
“Y-you’re beautiful.” Her hushed tone washed over him, and when her delicate fingers tangled in the fur of his mane, he could have wept with relief. Annabelle inched closer and slipped both hands in the thick ruff of fur around his face. A growl rumbled in his throat as she continued her gentle ministrations and whispered, “I still can’t believe this is happening.”
That I can shift into a lion? Or the telepathy? Or the mate thing? The teasing tone of his voice was not lost on Annabelle, who gave him a doubtful look. Zachary lifted his head and was almost eye-to-eye with Annabelle, even though he was standing on all fours. Believe it, babe. It’s all real and it’s all happening.
Zachary closed his eyes and thought the ancient words. A few seconds later, he shimmered and shifted back into his human form, leaving Annabelle looking no less amazed.
“Have I convinced you that I can fend for myself…and for you?” He glanced at the quickly darkening sky and the angry clouds. “Because right now, I have to get you the hell out of here or you’re gonna get soaked again.”
Annabelle opened her mouth to respond just as a massive thundercloud rolled overhead. Rain poured down in driving sheets, and the two of them stared at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter. Zachary grabbed her hand and ran with her through the foliage, back toward the beach.
“How the hell are we gonna ride that Jet Ski back in this storm?” Annabelle shouted over the roar of nature. She tried to shield her eyes from the rain and looked out at the massive crashing waves with more than a little fear. “Maybe we should try and find someplace here to hide out until the storm passes.”
“I got you covered.” Zachary smirked, grabbed her around the waist, and kissed her hard and fast. “Trust me,” he murmured.
With one hand on the Jet Ski handlebars and the other arm wrapped around Annabelle’s waist, Zachary shouted the ancient words and pictured the secluded patio of the rental cabin in his mind. As static fired over them and Annabelle’s eyes widened with amazement, Zachary kissed her and they vanished with a crackling snap.
An instant later, he broke the kiss and smiled at Annabelle, who was clinging to him like her life depended on it. Her fingers dug into his arms, and she looked around in awe to see that they were back at the private beach of the rental house—Jet Ski and all.
“That. Was. Amazing,” Annabelle said, laughing after each word.
“That’s visualization, baby.” Zach smacked her on the ass and kissed her quickly. “I’ve still got a few years until my thirtieth birthday, so my powers will be good for a while.” He waggled his eyebrows at her and grabbed her hand, pulling her toward the sliding glass doors of the house. “But not all of my powers will go away. So what do you say we get in out of the rain and I’ll show you a few other tricks?”
He wrapped one arm around her waist and dragged her to him. Annabelle sighed contentedly as he kissed her deeply while deftly opening the slider with his free hand. The stormy skies left the living room practically dark, and the two of them stumbled into the house while licking, tasting, and touching one another.
“See?” He shut the slider behind her and gathered her hands in his before bringing her fingers to his mouth. Zachary brushed his lips over her knuckles. “Now will you please tell me the truth? If we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together, I should probably know your full name.”
The smile disappeared from Annabelle’s face, and even in the dim light, he saw the color drain from her face. “No!” She shook her head and her voice quivered with fear. “Oh my God.”
“Hello, cousin.” An unfamiliar male voice drifted over Zach’s shoulder, and he froze as the cold steel of a gun pressed into his back. “In case you didn’t know, her name is Annabelle Marie Caedo.”
Zachary growled and his eyes shifted as every defensive instinct he had went into overdrive. He spun around, pushed Annabelle behind him protectively, and came face-to-face with two men. A shorter, older man he’d never seen before stood behind a taller younger one, who was armed with a gun and had a familiar face. Zach had seen that face in the files of known members of the Caedo family. The guy pointing a gun at him was Silvio Caedo—the man responsible for the latest attack on his people—and Annabelle’s cousin?
“Son of a bitch.” As the words fell from his lips, Zach’s body went cold and his head spun, trying to wrap his brain around what was happening. Pain exploded through him as the truth of it sank in, and in that moment, he didn’t care if he lived or died. Getting shot wouldn’t hurt half as bad as being betrayed by Annabelle.
His eyes glowed amber and his blood hummed with outrage, making his muscles twitch. The pounding of his own breaking heart filled his head as the blood rushed through his veins.
Zach glared at Annabelle. “You’re Caedo.” It wasn’t a question.