Predatory desire becomes a sensual game of control...
A dominant changeling wolf, SnowDancer lieutenant Cooper is not known for his patience. But when it comes to courting the shy, sexy woman he wants in his life and in his bed, he’ll have to use every ounce of control in his body to keep both man and wolf in check…at least until he convinces Grace he only bites a little.
One of the most submissive wolves in the SnowDancer pack, Grace knows nothing can come of her sensual fascination with big, bad, beautiful Cooper. He might possess her over and over in erotic dreams that leave her aching for the rough heat of his touch, but she knows that in reality, he is far too dangerous for her to handle. Then Cooper decides to change all the rules…
Includes a preview of the Psy/Changeling novel Heart of Obsidian!
Declaration of Courtship previously appeared in Wild Invitation
About the Author
Nalini lives and works in beautiful New Zealand.
Read an Excerpt
Declaration of Courtship
COOPER HAD BEEN good.
More good than he’d ever before been in his life.
He’d stayed away from his sexy new systems-maintenance engineer for over six months. Six months. It might as well have been a decade, as far as he was concerned. A dominant predatory changeling male did not do patient when he decided on a woman, but circumstances had forced patience on him, and it was a patience that had worn his wolf’s temper to a feral edge.
With her curvy body and that soft ebony hair he wanted to fist in his hands while he used his mouth, his teeth, to mark her creamy skin, she spoke to his every male instinct. The wolf who was his other half was in full agreement. Both sides of him wanted to claim her until no one had any doubts that she belonged to him.
He’d gritted his teeth and fought the primal urge, however, aware that as the lieutenant in charge of the satellite SnowDancer den located on the northern edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, Grace was under his protection. His status wouldn’t have put the brakes on his pursuit had she been even a moderately strong dominant, but Grace was one of the most submissive wolves in SnowDancer. Cooper knew damn well submissives didn’t automatically obey dominants, but the impulse was a visceral one.
Added to that, Grace had been deeply vulnerable immediately after shifting into a new den. Cooper had known he couldn’t go after her until she’d formed new friendships, created a support system that would give her the strength to reject him if his courtship was unwelcome.
His claws pricked the insides of his skin at the thought, but man and wolf both knew that if she said no, he had to back off. At once. Because where a dominant female might run to incite a man to chase her in a challenge that came from the wild heart of her wolf, if a submissive ran and it wasn’t open play, she was trying to escape.
Don’t run from me, sweetheart, he thought as he took the final steps to her. I only bite a little. Not quite true, but he was planning to be on his best behavior until she trusted him enough to handle the aggressive sensuality that was an integral aspect of his nature. “Grace.”
• • •
GRACE felt her heart kick against her ribs at the sound of that deep masculine voice as darkly delicious as it was dangerous to her senses.
Get a grip, Grace. You’re being ridiculous.
It was the same thing she’d been telling herself over and over since her first day in the San Gabriel den, when Cooper had welcomed her to the region. Big and deadly and gorgeous as he was, it wasn’t hard to see why he’d knocked the breath out of her at first sight. The man was a living, breathing aphrodisiac. If they’d been alone, she wasn’t sure she’d have survived that meeting without doing something very stupid.
Like attempting to claim skin privileges from a male she was certain no one dared touch without his explicit permission.
Yet even in her stunned state, she’d known the attraction to be a wild impossibility. While dominants mated or bonded with submissives often enough that it wasn’t considered unusual, the dominance gap between her and Cooper wastoo wide. They were literally at opposite ends of the hierarchy—her wolf knew Cooper could chew her up and spit her out without noticing.
And still, every time he came near her, her entire body went taut with expectation.
“Hi,” she said, without looking up from her kneeling position in a corner, beside a heating conduit that needed a minor refit.
Akin to the den in the San Rafael Mountains where she’d spent her teenage years, and on a smaller scale than the central den in the Sierra Nevada mountains, this den had literally been carved into and below a mountain, then reinforced with stone walls. The tunnels were wide and spacious, the rooms generous, but underneath the raw natural beauty of the stone pierced with threads of glittering mineral lay a highly complex technological heartbeat, one that Grace helped maintain.
“Has there been a malfunction in one of the critical systems?” she asked, guessing that was why Cooper had taken the time to personally track her down. With both the chief and deputy chief of her department away at different tech conferences, Grace was currently the one in charge. “I can look at it straight away—this isn’t urgent.”
“No, everything’s fine.” He crouched down beside her, immediately taking up all available air in the vicinity.
Concentrate on the job, she ordered herself, attempting to focus on the digital wrench she was using to remove a fried tube…but her entire body was attuned to his every breath, her muscles strung tight.
“How’s it going in this section?” he asked, his voice pitched at a level she recognized as “careful.”
She fought the suicidal urge to throw a tool at his head. Her place in the hierarchy didn’t determine her entire personality. As with every other dominance level, submissives could be shy or exuberant, cheerful or moody, sensual or reserved. Grace might be quiet and a little shy in comparison to the majority of her packmates, but she could handle loud voices just fine—growing up with two older adoptive siblings, dominants who’d inherited a hair-trigger temper from their father, she’d heard more than her share.
“We’re about halfway through the overhaul,” she said, wishing he’d forget her place in the hierarchy and see her simply as a woman…a woman he wanted.
If he did, what would you do?
Probably run very fast in the other direction.
She twisted the wrench a fraction too hard and almost broke the tube. “Damn.” Cheeks burning, she flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and completed the extraction with care, hotly conscious of Cooper’s watchful gaze. “There. We can recycle the components.”
“Removed without a scratch. Impressive.” He picked up the burned-out tube. “Did you get the new shipment you wanted?”
She tore her eyes away from his hands, face heating even further at the raw images that had formed unbidden in her mind—of those big hands on her body, on her breasts, his skin exquisitely rough against her own. Never had she responded to a man in such a way, and that it was a man whose mere presence made her wolf acutely uncomfortable? Surely, fate was having a good laugh at Grace’s expense.
“Yes,” she managed to say in response to his question, “I did. They were high quality, as promised.” Hearing a gentle click as he returned the tube to the floor, she put down the wrench and went to pick up a—
“Grace.” Fingers curling around her wrist.
Her pulse spiked as she stared at that strong, dark-skinned hand so warm and gentle, the calluses on his palm a sensual abrasion. She couldn’t speak, the rush of noise inside her head too loud, drowning out all else.
“Grace.” Softer this time. Coaxing. “Look at me.”
Swallowing, she chanced a peek, her wolf at rigid attention. If he’d commanded, she would’ve obeyed at once, her nature such that defiance of an order from a lieutenant stressed her on a primal level. The fact that she was a changeling rather than a wild wolf meant she had the capacity for such defiance, but it would require bone-deep disagreement on her part, enough for the human side of her nature to override the powerful instincts of her wolf.
But Cooper hadn’t commanded. He’d requested…in a way that made everything female in Grace come to trembling attention. Now, her eyes met the intense near black of his and skated away. When he did nothing but wait with a patience she’d never expected from him, she lifted her lashes again, her gaze locking with his.
It sent a thrill through her wolf. To hold the gaze of a lieutenant was a bold move for any wolf, but for a submissive, it went far beyond that. In any other circumstance, it could’ve been dangerous—just as she had her instincts, dominants had theirs. If one interpreted the eye contact as a challenge, it could end badly. The fact that in the majority of cases where such a thing had happened both parties had been in wolf form did nothing to negate the danger of triggering an inadvertent violent response.
Because a submissive would never come out the winner.
Cooper’s thumb brushed over the skittering pulse in her wrist. “There you are.” The low murmur touched her in a caress so intimate, it felt as if she was bare to the skin, exposed and vulnerable.
Inhaling a jerky breath, she broke the shocking eye contact, tugged gently at her wrist. When Cooper’s fingers tightened for an instant, her heart stuttered. He released her before the next beat. Not certain of anything, she fell back on what she knew, picking up another one of her tools to do…something. Except her thoughts were jumbled, a burn of lingering heat around her wrist. She began working on a random nonessential section of the duct, where she could easily fix any errors later.
Beside her, Cooper shifted a fraction, the single inch he closed between them enough to have her wolf quivering and alert, with anticipation, desire, and a good dose of panic all mixed in.
“You don’t ever have to fear anything from me, Grace.” It was a rough murmur, a verbal pet of her senses. “If you want me to stop anytime, anywhere, the only word you ever need to use is ‘No.’ Okay?”
She jerked her head up and down, her throat as dry as the shimmering sands of the Mojave.
“But,” he continued, “I don’t intend to go away until you tell me to do so. I’m planning to court you.”
The tool fell from her nerveless fingers to clatter to the floor. Reaching over, Cooper picked it up, put it back into her toolbox. “I’ll leave you to your work…but Grace? I’ll be seeing you again soon.” With that promise, he rose and was gone, his powerful body moving with a wild strength kept in fierce check as he strode down the relatively narrow access corridor and out into the den proper.
Heart crashing against her ribs hard enough to hurt, her breath jagged in her throat, Grace collapsed against the smooth stone of the wall. “Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.” Her chest rose and fell in a harsh, uneven rhythm as she attempted to take in air, clear her head.
The effort failed.
Reaching blindly for her water bottle, she swallowed.
The cool liquid wet her throat but did nothing to calm the fever in her blood.
“I’m planning to court you.”
Never in her wildest imaginings had she thought Cooper would speak those words to her. The furthest she’d dared had been improbable erotic fantasies that left her sweat-soaked and aching for completion, fantasies in which they lay skin to skin, her lips on his throat, his hands gripping her hips as he pinned her under him in readiness for his possession. In real life, she’d almost certainly panic if she was ever in that position, her wolf seizing her mind to present quiescent submission to the predator in bed with her, but the hard reality of the hierarchy didn’t matter in her fantasies.
Had Cooper invited her to his bed, those fantasies may have given her some kind of a foundation in which to ground herself, ephemeral though it would’ve been. However a changeling male like Cooper didn’t use the word “court” when he was welcoming a woman to share his body and his bed, whether for the night or longer. No, he was serious.
Big, dangerous, beautiful Cooper wanted her as his.
ALMOST READY TO believe she’d imagined the whole thing, Grace lifted the inside of her wrist to her face, drew in the wild earth and dark amber of Cooper’s scent from her skin. The complex notes made her want to nuzzle her nose into his throat and breathe deep, until she could separate out the elements that made up the decadent whole.
Even now, the lingering whisper of it caused her skin to prickle, her mind cascading with sensory memories of the dark heat of his muscled body, the deep bronze of his skin, the black hair he’d taken to shaving so close to his skull that she had to constantly fight the urge to reach up and brush her hand over the bristles. Like those on his jaw.
What would that jaw feel like rubbing against skin she bared only in the privacy of her bedroom?
Groaning, she took another drink of water. It didn’t do much good, adrenaline continuing to pump hard and urgent through her veins until it felt as if her skin was going to burst from the frenetic energy ricocheting within her body, her wolf as dazed as the human side of herself. So when she heard someone else enter the access corridor, her brain seized on the distraction. And when she scented Vivienne a second before the tall, slender woman appeared around the corner, she wanted to sob with joy.
Ice-cold beauty, that’s the initial impression Grace had had of her fellow engineer with her ruler-straight black hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail and almond-shaped eyes of brown, cool against flawless white skin. Then Vivienne had smiled—as she did now—with infectious warmth, revealing the joyous reality of her spirit. “Hey, boss. I’m on my way to begin the rehaul of the comm system in this grid—the issue with the 7B comm line was nothing but a slight glitch.”
Grace touched the space beside her. “Have a break.” Critically for both their working relationship and friendship, while Vivienne was a dominant—albeit on the lower end of the power scale—she had no problem taking orders from a submissive supervisor. The level of such flexibility possessed by each individual, no matter his or her place in the hierarchy, was a fact the “civilian” chiefs in the pack had to keep constantly in mind when they created work teams.
Because when it came down to it, they weren’t human; they were changeling, they were wolf.
“Was Coop here? I love the depth of his scent.” It was a cheerful comment as Vivienne took the seat Grace had offered. “It’s so quintessentially male, you know? If my wolf wasn’t half terrified of him, I’d be tempted to serve myself up to him on a platter.” She sighed. “That scar of his should detract from his looks, but it only adds to his sex appeal. God, can you imagine what he’d be like in bed?”
Grace opened her mouth and the words just fell out, sounding as surreal as the first time she’d heard them. “He says he’s going to court me.”
Vivienne’s head snapped toward her. “I knew it!” Rampant glee. “I told Todd not to flirt with you, but would my dumbass twin listen? No! Hah! I can’t wait to see the look on his face when I tell him he was attempting to make time with the lieutenant’s woman.”