Tony got out of his truck and glanced at his watch. He grimaced when he saw how late it was. It was becoming routine to meet his friends here on Friday after the training session they had every day. Normally they tried to meet around one-thirty to miss the lunch crowd and be on to something else by the time schools let out and all the high school kids hit the mall at three-thirty. Of course, every once in a while, something like today happens and he gets stuck in meetings with his dad for longer than planned.
His friends never complained though. The girls would browse the shops for a while and then they would sit in the food court and just watch. They liked to make a game out of watching the high school kids and their antics. They had decided on Fridays for the simple fact that if he was running late, they had plenty of entertainment. It always amazed them at how immature human teenagers could be.
Tony scoffed to himself as he leaned against the truck and watched the activity entering and leaving the huge mall. He kept calling the teenagers ‘kids’ but he was only a few years older than they were. At twenty-three, dealing with some of the Pride business that he did, sometimes he felt older, way older.
He was part of a very secret group of lion changelings. He silently laughed at the thought. Part of? He was in line to be the next Pride leader of just over three hundred other lion changelings and that was just in this area. He also would have to keep treaties with other lion Prides in the state. Lions weren’t the only changelings, though some were rarer than others.
His dad, Ronald Clark, or Ronnie as people liked to call him, had been training him since he was ten on how to make sure everything ran smoothly, and their secret stayed a secret. Now, his dad thought he was ready in case something happened to him. Tony wasn’t as positive about it as he was. He just prayed that nothing happened so he wouldn’t be put into a position to find out.
The Pride lived in a gated subdivision on the outskirts of town but owned several hundred thousand acres around it. A stone wall fence surrounded the entire subdivision where the lions lived, but a large back gate opened into the property beyond. The back end of the property opened into a national forest that was owned by a private party. That private party was the Pride. That information was buried so far in paperwork though that even if someone really dug for it, Tony doubted if anyone would find out who really owned it. The national forest along with the private property gave the lions plenty of room to change and roam free when they felt the need for it. As happened occasionally, a hiker would get lost and stray onto Pride property, so Ronnie always made sure to keep a tight rein on how many changed at once to go running so that no humans were accidently hurt; and to control the fights that tended to break out if someone waited too long to let their lion loose.
And that was just part of it. There was a lot to keep up with and handle, another reason why Tony wasn’t sure if he was ready for the responsibility.
He straightened and headed for the double doors of the entrance. Holding the door open for the elderly woman walking behind him, he went inside. His eyes adjusted instantly to the dim lighting of the mall entryway. That was one of the perks of being a lion in a human body. No minute blindness after a sudden light change. When he looked around, the group of people that had walked in just ahead of him were still standing inside the door waiting for their eyes to adjust.
Shaking his head at the wonder of such small differences, he began to walk toward the food court that was located in the center of the mall. He was almost there when he smelled something delectable. Strangely enough, it wasn’t a food smell. Even more strange was the way his heart skipped a beat and then accelerated in exhilaration. The scent was so faint that he almost missed it but the surge of emotions that came with it were alarming. It was warmth and home. His inner lion was roaring 'MINE'.
Tony stopped at the edge of the walkway out of everyone’s way and looked around frantically trying to find the source of that incredible essense. Lion changelings had an enhanced sense of smell. Another small difference and not always a good thing as far as some smells went. Most of the time, being in crowded places was almost like a physical assault on the senses. Between the different food stalls, candle shops, stores such as Bath and Body Works, and the scents of the different people brushing past, it normally took a large amount of concentration and focus to separate and pinpoint different scents. His alpha blood made him unique in that he could separate scents easily, without the effort it took most. The mall had the usual Friday crowd since the local schools had closed for the weekend an hour ago. When he identified where the sweet scent was coming from, what he saw surprised him. That didn’t happen very often.
It was a woman that was standing outside of the Macy’s store across the aisle. He could tell from her scent that she was human. She was taller than most of the other women walking around her. If he had to guess, she was about five feet ten inches tall. She looked like she was in good shape, like she exercised on a regular basis. Her back was to him so he couldn’t see her facial features, just the back of her head and her shoulder-length wavy brown hair. She was wearing a faded t-shirt, worn jeans and tennis shoes. She had a purse on her shoulder, but it was a small brown practical piece; nothing like the bright colorful creations that the teenagers around him were carrying, so he assumed she was older. It was hard enough trying to tell someone’s age when you saw them face to face but since her back was to him, there really was no way to be sure. She was facing the store, looking inside as if she were waiting for someone.
Normally he would have just pushed it aside and kept moving, but something about her scent was doing strange things to his body. It was calling to him in a way that he was sure he would regret if he ignored it. It was hard to explain because he had never felt anything like it before. His heart was pounding, almost as if in eagerness. As if he already knew her and couldn‘t wait to see her. He hadn’t even seen her face! It was beyond anything that he had ever experienced. His body was humming with anticipation. His lion refused to let him move in any direction but towards her.
Being drawn by something that he didn’t understand but intrigued enough to find out what it was, he crossed the isle; not an easy feat, and walked up behind her. “Hi. Are you looking for someone?”
The woman turned toward him, and the breath slammed out of his lungs. He was staring into the greenest eyes he had ever seen. And this woman wasn’t old by any means. She was twenty at the most. Now that she was facing him, he could see that she had a natural tan, not the obvious artificial tans that the teenagers were getting into now. Her face was make-up free and smooth, her lips full. It was her eyes that kept drawing his attention though. The bright green color with thick lashes that surrounded them made her eyes look too big for her face. Glancing down at the rest of her, he noticed that she had generous breasts and slim hips. Her skin looked so soft he felt the need to touch it and just barely restrained himself. His hands actually itched to make contact.
Where had that come from? He rarely touched anyone unless he was training.
The woman looked around as if to make sure that he was speaking to her. Coming to the conclusion that he was, she looked back at him with a shy smile. “Yes, actually. I’m meeting my friend, Amy.” She glanced at her watch and Tony couldn’t help but notice that it was a plain, simple black watch. Nothing flashy, just like the rest of her with the exception of her eyes. He vaguely wondered why she was trying so hard to not be seen. “She’s running late, which isn’t really all that unusual when she gets left in here by herself. She’s kind of what you would call a shop-a-holic.” Her face reddened as she realized she was babbling a little. It was the cutest thing he had ever seen.
Tony smiled and held out his hand. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to touch her. Even if it was just to shake her hand in greeting. His lion was brushing up against his skin trying to get as close to her as he could. “I’m Tony.” He watched her reaction as a guarded look crossed her expressive face. If he didn't know any better he would say that she was even more reluctant to touch people than he was and that was saying something.
Hesitating and glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she slowly took his hand and gave a light shake. “Lindsey.” She felt off balance, which was something she wasn’t comfortable with. She was always in control. More had to be than wanting to be. A jolt shot up her arm when her hand touched his. She gasped at the contact that seemed to flow through her entire body. Judging by the slight widening of his eyes, he felt it too. Her heart was racing, and her hands were shaking. From the heat she was feeling on her skin she was sure that she was blushing. That wasn't a reaction she trusted. She pulled her hand from his slowly and put them behind her back so he couldn’t see the shake. She looked around her again to make sure that no one was paying any uncharacteristic amount of attention to her and what she was doing.
Lindsey was confused about why a guy that looked as good as Tony would come out of nowhere and strike up a conversation with her. She was bland, knew it, and even preferred it. She purposely dressed in a way that wouldn’t draw attention, rarely if ever wore make-up, and tried her best to look like a wallflower. Not easy to do when you’re taller than the average female.
He was tall, at least six feet four inches. She had to look up to make eye contact and that was extraordinary too. She normally either looked people in the eye or looked down. When she looked straight at him, she was eye level with his shoulders. He had a broad, muscular chest and strong arms. The blue t-shirt he wore showed off his muscles, which she assumed he had probably worn just for that purpose. It had been her experience that men that had his physique did everything they could to show it off. Lean hips and long legs were incased in what looked like new carpenter jeans and on his feet were hiking boots. All-in-all, it looked rather comfortable.
His brown hair was a little longer than the traditional boys' cut. The amazing thing was that it wasn’t a solid brown. There seemed to be several different shades of brown that was truly unique. His nose was straight, and he had a strong jaw. His lips were a little on the thin side, though his bottom lip was fuller than the top. It was his eyes that caught and held her. They were a cobalt blue with what looked like stars had exploded from the pupils. Very fascinating. There were lines at the corners of his eyes like he squinted into the sun or laughed a lot. The easy way he smiled also gave testament to the later.
She felt drawn to him. There was a pull that wanted her to get close to him, trust him. She didn't trust anyone except a select few and absolutely not someone she had just met less than five minutes ago. That draw truely confused her. It made her want to burrow into his chest and have those strong arms surround her. That lure of safety is what finely made her pull back, literally taking a small step back. She wasn't safe. Hadn't been for a long time. But that call of safety was almost addictive.
Noticing her small retreat, Tony used the excuse of someone brushing past him to take a step closer to her. That guarded look made him want to gather her to him. It was obvious that she was uncomfortable. She was feeling that pull between them just as much as he was but, being human, it made even less sense to her than it did to him. He understood that. Understandably, having a strange guy his size walk up and start talking to you probably would make most women uncomfortable. They were in an extremely public area so her skittishness was puzzling.
A shadow crossed her face but it was there and gone again so fast he wondered if he had really seen it. Her every reaction captivated him. Unable to stop himself, he reached up and pushed a stray strand of her hair from her face. He took one more step closer to her to keep their conversation private from the other people around them.
“Lindsey,” he murmured. He liked saying her name; it gave the feeling that they were already friends. Already close. “Tell me you are feeling this same draw that I am.” Tony smiled, loving that being this close to her meant he could take in more of her scent. Gardenia's. That's what she smelled like. He couldn't help that his smile got wider now that he could place her scent. He would know her anywhere now.
He’s got a killer smile, Lindsey thought. Every time he flashed it at her, her heart rate would accelerate. Well, more than it already was. She shifted from one foot to the other, looking so confused it was almost adorable. “I don’t want to sound rude or anything but you don’t seem like the type of guy who would want to be around someone like me.”
“Someone like you?” Her eyes dropped and a cautiousness came over her. He wondered as to why. He couldn’t tell her that the way she smelled was like an aphrodisiac and that his lion was straining to come out and rub against her. He couldn’t let her know that he was anything but human. The Pride must always stay a secret. That was the first thing taught to every cub. Suddenly something else incredible dawned on him. “You aren’t used to anyone taking an interest in you, are you?” He felt he already knew the answer to that. He couldn't help but be happy that she didn't have much experience.
Lindsey blushed harder, “No, I’m not. I don’t usually get out long enough to really meet anyone.” She seemed embarrassed admitting that.
Something about the way she had hesitated in her explanation made him curious what she wasn’t telling him. He found it hard to believe that every male she came into contact with was that blind. Deciding not to push too hard too fast, he was just thankful that the males were that blind. Asking too many questions could backfire. He had his secrets too. Leaning against the wall, he felt like he had all the time in the world to talk to her. His reasons for being there in the first place were completely forgotten. All of his attention was solely focused on her. His fingers seemed to have a mind of their own as they skimmed down her arm and drew her hand from behind her back. Lacing their fingers together he was rewarded by a jolt that flowed between them. That connection seemed to grow stronger the more they touched.
Gazing at this handsome man next to her, Lindsey couldn't help but wonder why. Why her? Of all the girls he could have chosen, why her? “Why me?” she heard herself ask.
She looked at him and he was hit with another shock as those powerful green eyes collided with his. He wondered if it were something he would ever get used to. He hoped not. That made him pause. He knew he had to see her again after this. It was strange to think that he already couldn't imagine his life without her in it. He was trying to appear normal and wasn’t sure if he was pulling it off or not. He was having a strange reaction to her but it was exciting. He always loved a challenge.
"Why you?" He could tell that her confusion was genuine. "Because you are beautiful, for one. As soon as I saw you I felt this pull and I just had to find out what was causing it. I don't understand it much either but I want to find out what it is. I want to find out what it is about you that draws me. You never answered me, Lindsey. Do you feel this draw that's between us?" He absentmindedly rubbed his thumb against the pulse in her wrist.
A tiny smile grew into a grin that almost knocked Tony over. Before she had been beautiful but when she smiled, she…glowed. He could find no other word to describe it. There was nothing fake about her expressions either. Her smile shown through her eyes.
"Yes, I feel it," she all but whispered.
“Why don't we start by getting to know each other better?” he asked. “Are you in college?"
Lindsey bit her lip nervously, her smile fading a bit. "No, I'm a senior in high school. I work on evenings and weekends."
"Really? You seem older.” Some more of the light faded from her eyes and he could tell that he had upset her, so he rushed to correct himself. “I don't mean that in a bad way. You just seem more mature than most teenagers I've known.” He didn’t think that he had explained himself very well but there was a small smile of understanding on her face so he couldn’t be in too much trouble.
She was hurt but didn’t see the point of showing it. Men rarely looked beneath the surface and she knew that there was no way she could compare to the other women around her. She had to remind herself that she dressed this way for a reason, so that she wouldn’t call attention to herself. The chances of her running into Tony after this conversation was over were slim to none anyway. So, she did what she always did when she felt someone was getting too close. She played it safe and laughed it off. Shrugging her shoulder, she said, “I get that alot actually. It's not a big deal.”
The relief in his smile was evident. Wanting to change the subject, she changed the tables on him. “So, what about you? What do you do?”
Tony’s smile grew wider knowing she was changing the subject. “I work in construction for my dad’s company, Clark Construction.” He shrugged a broad shoulder as though it were no big deal. And to him, it wasn't. He didn't really want to talk about himself but if it kept her here longer he would do it.
“Your company put on the addition to the hotel where I work.” His company had a reputation for being the best and they had more than proved it. Lindsey thought that explained a lot about his physique and tan. “That explains a lot.” The statement slipped out before she could censor it.
“About what?” Tony looked at her with amusement. He remembered the project she referred to. There was only one hotel job that they had done in the last year. He had actually been in charge of the whole project and wondered why he had never seen her then. He found it bizarre that she had been around him before but this was the first time he had noticed her. That hotel job had lasted months. He would have thought he would have run into her at least once.
She blushed again, wondering how she had gotten herself into this. She was never tongue-tied and she never blushed and blurted out what was running through her mind but apparently, around Tony, that was all she seemed capable of doing. It was completely infuriating and reminded her why she avoided talking to guys. One of the reasons anyway. “The way you look,” she murmured. She fidgeted with the purse on her shoulder and then lifted it over her head so that the strap was across her body. She was worried that she would get so nervous with her hands shaking that she would drop it.
Tony looked at her for a moment trying to decide if what she had said was a good thing. Very subtly he breathed in her scent again. There was definite nervousness. Strangely enough, there was also fear, which he didn’t need his enhanced senses to figure out. She was constantly scanning the crowd around them. Underneath that though was arousal. She was attracted to him. He found nothing to indicate that she didn’t like what she saw. He straightened from his lean against the wall with a teasing smile on his face, hoping that the attraction for her that seemed to be burning him alive didn’t show through so much that it scared her away. He knew she felt it but not to the extent that he did. “So, you like the way I look.” He made it a statement.
Lindsey gestured around them with her hand to make a point. “Well, yeah. I’m not blind and I'm not the only one. You can see the way all the women around us are looking at you.”
She gaze swept around them. His followed hers and realized that there were indeed several women looking at him. Tony brought his gaze back to her with a shrug of his shoulders. “I hadn’t noticed. I haven’t seen anything but you since I walked over here,” he told her, squeezing her hand in his. And it was the absolute truth. He really hadn’t, which surprised him. He always made it a point to know what and who was around him at all times. Being the Pride leader's oldest son had its drawbacks. Having to constantly be on guard was the main one.
Lindsey wanted to believe him but it was too much to believe that she could hold anyone’s interest, much less this guys. The way he looked at her while they talked made her feel like she had his full attention. It usually made her nervous to have that much attention focused on her. From Tony though, she liked it; maybe a little too much. When he had squeezed her hand a warmth had spread through her chest. A warmth she wanted to believe would always be there. She had to keep reminding herself that she had just met him. That pull inside her wanted her to tell Tony everything. Wanted her to surround herself and bask in that security that seemed to ooze from him. But that was something that past experience had proven to her that she could never have.
Not wanting him to realize how much he affected her, she asked him another question; the first thing that popped into her head, anything to draw the attention away from her. “What do you do besides work?"
He saw the shutters come down with the question. She didn't believe him. He would just have to prove to her that she was all that he saw. The longer he stood here with her, the more every woman he had ever been with or showed any interest in faded into the background. “A few extra things. Go out with my friends and family when I can.” His thoughts flashed back to all the training and meetings that he attended with his dad, the surveillance he did around the property. None of which he could tell her about. “You would think it’s boring.”
Tony’s gaze shot around them. When he looked back at her, his eyes were guarded. She couldn’t help but wonder why he was being so vague all of a sudden. She knew he wasn’t telling her something. Lindsey’s mother got that look on her face when she didn’t want her to know something. Lindsey decided that she didn’t want to push. She didn’t really have a right to. There were things about her that he would never know. There were four people who were allowed that close and even they didn’t know everything. So why should she expect for him to reveal everything to her when she knew she could never do the same? They were doomed to fail and they hadn't even started anything.
She laughed a little. “It amazes me. You’ve known me for a total of three minutes, yet you already know what would bore me.” She was actually starting to relax a bit. It was easier talking to someone she would never see again. She couldn’t believe it. There was a sense of freedom in that.
Most boys she talked to had a hard time looking her in the face. Their concentration couldn’t seem to stay above her neckline. She was not anatomically proportioned with her large breasts and slim hips. That was why she wore baggy shirts. As far as she could tell though, Tony’s eyes hadn’t strayed once. It made not liking him that much harder. She knew she had to resist this pull. It was dangerous in so many ways.
He opened his mouth to reply but stopped when someone behind him called his name. He turned with a puzzled expression to see who it was. Lindsey looked over his shoulder to see a man in his early twenties with red hair motioning for Tony to come join him. Tony raised his hand with one finger up to let the man know that he would be another minute before turning back.
“I have to go,” he said with an apologetic smile. “I would love to spend more time with you though. Can I meet you later or do you already have plans?” He really hoped she would meet him again later.
Her eyes widened and she went perfectly still at the realization that he wanted to see her again. She felt like a deer caught in the headlights of a car.
Shaking her head slightly to break the spell, Lindsey seemed to remember Amy at that point and glanced into the store to see her at the checkout lane paying for her items. It amazed her at how wrapped up in this stranger she had gotten. Looking back at Tony, she realized she didn’t have a lot of time before Amy descended and started asking a lot of questions. She could be blunt and quite embarrassing at times. “I’m actually meeting some friends and we’ll be out late tonight.” She paused. What she was thinking was outragous. “I could give you my number and you could just call me when you get the chance.” There was a question in her statement as though she weren’t sure that he was really interested. She didn’t see how giving him her number could hurt anything since she always had her phone on her.
“Here. Put your number into my phone. Maybe I can video call you later.” He pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to her, watching as she added herself to his contacts. He had a gut feeling that she would never call him so he would have to call her. And he really wanted to see her again. Soon.
Lindsey handed his phone back to him. She really hoped she wouldn't regret this. She watched as he hit a few buttons and then her phone beeped.
"There. Now you will know it's me when I call." He gave her another of his grins. “Why don’t you meet me at the movies tomorrow at five o’clock? We can get something to eat afterwards so we can talk.” He knew that if he had offered to pick her up she wouldn’t have accepted, so he tried to make the offer as middle of the road as possible. He took a step back, signaling that he had to leave.
He seemed confident that he already knew her answer so Lindsey just nodded. “Okay. I’ll meet you there. Might be fun.”
“Great. I’ll see you then.” He was still grinning as he squeezed her hand one last time before reluctantly letting her go. Turning, he walked towards his friends.