Well, he’d wanted to die, or at least not cared if he lived anymore. It looked like Jacob was going to see an early end to his suffering. He couldn’t control the fear he felt as he looked at the huge, golden lion shifter hovering over him.
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”
Jacob couldn’t repress the whimper that escaped him. He hadn’t come across many people who wouldn’t hurt him, and the only shifters he’d ever known had been his own kind.
“How about I tell you a little about myself, hm? It’s been months since I’ve had anyone to talk to. Or at, I guess. Heh. Then maybe you’ll believe me when I promise not to hurt you. And maybe you’ll tell me about yourself. You’re pretty banged up.”
That was, in all likelihood, an understatement, Jacob thought. He hurt, all over, but his soul ached more than his body.
“Can you nod if that’s okay?” the stranger asked. “I can’t leave you alone, you’re injured and need at least a month of good meals. But I can shut up.”
Jacob studied him for a moment. He looked like he really wanted to talk. Jacob knew how lonely he’d been since his pack had been slaughtered. This guy had been isolated for months, if Jacob understood him. He was probably pretty lonely, too. It wouldn’t hurt to let him talk. He gave the barest of nods and the man smiled, his joy unmistakable.
“Cool.” He scratched his chin and glanced away from Jacob for a moment before looking at him. “My name is Caliveras Diez. I hate my first name, of course, but it’s what my mama chose, so I would never change it. I do go by Cali, though.” Cali smiled and his long, pointy canines showed clearly, the tips grazing his bottom lip. “I am a lion shifter, but you know that. I set up this place, this land, my land, as a sanctuary—well.” His smile faltered. “Originally, I’d meant it to be for other feline shifters, but none have shown up in the months since I left my scent in numerous places. That’s worrisome, because either there are fewer lion and other cat shifters than I thought, or else they simply don’t want to be part of the shifter world anymore. Although—“ He scratched his chin. “I guess I can’t blame them in some instances. Humans can be…deadly.”
Jacob’s heart pounded and his eyes burned. He turned his head, embarrassed by the sudden rush of emotions that threatened to make him sob like a baby. “They can,” he rasped past his tight through.
“My parents were killed on an illegal hunt,” Cali said. “They’d been captured in Spain—that’s where Mom’s family was from. Dad turned her when they fell in love. Anyway. I didn’t know, just thought they were on vacation still. When I didn’t hear from them after several months, I went to Spain. That’s when I found out from a falcon shifter that my parents had been captured, then shipped to the States.”
He sounded so sad, Jacob had to look at him.
Cali’s smile was bittersweet, and his expression a far-off one, as if he were lost in his memories. “They let them out at a shithole game ranch in Nevada. I don’t know why my parents didn’t shift, maybe they couldn’t. I’ll never have answers to that question, and it haunts me. Ah, that’s probably more than you wanted to know about me. Don’t know why I even...” Cali trailed off, closing his eyes. “Well. I’ve certainly overshared, haven’t I?”
Jacob’s heart hurt for him, but he couldn’t find the words to offer comfort. His wolf was still panicked at the nearness of such a powerful predator, for one thing, and for another, he was distracted by the way Cali was blushing, his golden skin darkened to a tawny brown across his cheeks and down to his neck.
“I just feel like you’ve been hurt, too,” Cali said, shrugging. “I mean, obviously, on the outside, but more than all these outside injuries you have.”
“Yeah. Hurt.” Jacob couldn’t believe how raspy his voice was. How long had it been since he’d spoken with anyone? He coughed, and Cali gently wrapped the towel around his waist.
“Can you walk?” Cali asked. “Your feet—”
“I can do it.” His feet hurt, but Jacob’s pride was hurting worse. He’d crawl to the bed if he had to.
“I don’t mind helping you.”
Jacob shook his head. “No.” He had to be strong, at least in whatever way he could.
“I’ll get you some food and water.” Cali watched him for a moment, and Jacob turned away, spotting the bead and slowly making his way over to it.
His legs felt weak and wobbly. He was tired down to the very marrow of his bones. Hearing Cali’s story didn’t give Jacob any hope for their kind.
As he lay on the bed, under a warm blanket, surrounded by the scent of a lion, Jacob struggled with his emotions. He didn’t know what he wanted—life, death, something in between. His head was an utter mess.
Yet when Cali returned, carrying a tray upon which were a glass of water, a pitcher, and a steaming bowl of what Jacob thought was soup, he found himself inclined to stop thinking and repress all the ugliness that haunted him.
“Jacob,” he said as Cali set the tray over his lap. “Jacob Hunter. That’s my name, I mean.” He took the water and quickly gulped some down. It was unfortunate timing for him to have a coughing fit, not that that made any difference. He sputtered and hacked as Cali darted to the bathroom, saying he’d get another towel.
Great. Jacob had just coughed all over his host, who happened to be a handsome, and—at least right now—decent guy. He felt his face burn with embarrassment and wished he were still unconscious. Maybe if I close my eyes…
Hiding behind his eyelids hadn’t helped at all. It hadn’t magically turned him invisible Jacob whimpered and opened one eye. “I’m sorry.”
Cali sat beside him, the mattress dipping under his weight. His expression was one of concern. Jacob was certain of it, though why Cali would be worried about him—a shifter Cali didn’t know—was beyond Jacob.
“You have nothing to apologize for.” Cali raised a cloth to Jacob’s face. “You’ve got some water on you, and your lip is bleeding.”
Jacob was lucky he hadn’t dumped the water all over himself. His stomach rumbled loudly and he thought he couldn’t possibly be any more pathetic.
“Don’t wallow in self-pity.” The sharp command from Cali startled Jacob out of that very frame of mind. Up until then, Cali had been so patient and kind.
Cali grimaced at him and shook his head. “Don’t be afraid of me, either. I’m not being cruel. I could see you coming down on yourself for—well, I couldn’t say what, because I’m not in your head, but you have a very expressive face.” Then he smiled crookedly, one canine pressing onto his bottom lip. “Even battered as it is. I’ve found that self-pity is a colossal waste of time, although, once you get past it, it’s also a great motivator. So, let’s work on getting past that, okay?”
Jacob’s heart did a funny little fluttering thing. “O-okay.” He wasn’t even certain what he was agreeing to, but with Cali staring at him, still wearing that lopsided smile, Jacob couldn’t say no to the lion shifter.
He couldn’t say anything at all, in fact, because a shudder ripped through him.
“Jacob? Jacob, what’s wrong?”
Cali’s voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. Every muscle in Jacob’s body went tense, he flushed hot, then cold, and darkness pulled him away in its arms.