In the form of the panther, Sophia stalked her target. The forest provided many shaded and grassy nooks, and Domino was an admirable opponent. The three-year-old panther could remain still for hours. His spotted fur also gave him excellent camouflage, so Sophia used her heightened sense of smell to find him.
When she got within springing distance, she lowered into a crouch, her back legs digging into the ground for better purchase. Then she pounced.
Domino sensed her the moment she left the ground. He shifted to accept her weight as she tackled him. Her paws wrapped around his torso. Then she opened her powerful jaw and went for the soft part of his neck.
He quickly flipped their positions, using his greater strength to dump her onto her back. Her feline instincts had her wrenching herself to right her center of gravity. This resulted in them taking a long, tangled tumble down the side of a grassy hill.
At the base of the hill rested several of Domino’s siblings. They watched for only a moment before leaping into the fray.
She froze, her ear caught between Domino’s teeth. Rolling her eyes in the direction of her mother’s voice, she tried to ignore the heavy weight of Domino’s haunches where they rested on her right side. The panthers around her also grew still, hearing the maternal censuring tone and paying it heed.
Busted, Sophia thought.
She rolled out from under Domino and rose gracefully onto all four paws. Her mother stopped at the edge of the walkway leading from their home into the surrounding forest. The rose-colored sundress she wore swelled over her very pregnant belly and stopped just short of her bare feet. Her long, curling brown hair, worn with just a few loose daises tucked into it, gave her the look of a woodland goddess from the human fairytales she used to read Sophia as a child. Her lime green eyes held a warning that her curving lips belied.
Knowing she would get a lecture, Sophia padded closer. When she spotted Quincy watching in the distance, sunlight gleaming on his wavy blond hair and the many silver markings tattooing his muscular arms, she wanted to sink into the earth. Thank goodness panthers didn’t blush, she mused, ignoring the racing of her heart that she considered normal when Quincy was involved.
She obligingly sat near her mother’s feet and looked up. The light green and dark blue leaves decorating the outside of her mom’s eyes gave her beautiful face a gentle appearance, but Sophia was only too aware of the fierceness of which her mother was capable.
Fortunately, her mother was a sucker for animals.
Even as her mom opened her mouth to speak, Sophia leaned forward and nudged her hand with her muzzle, urging it to the top of her head. She paired the nudge with a blink of her wide, panther eyes. As she intended, she succeeded in distracting her mother, who lowered herself to her knees and rubbed Sophia’s head.
“Don’t think this gets you out of a tongue lashing,” her mother said in her soft, pleasing voice. “You ditched your training session again.”
Figuring it couldn’t hurt, Sophia licked her mom’s cheek. That provoked a laugh.
Sophia huffed, knowing what was coming.
“I know you prefer to spend your time in your laboratory or here with the panthers,” her mother continued, “but weapons training is so important. Not so long ago, you saw just how important.”
She referred to the recent experience that shook their usually uneventful lives. About two months before, Sophia’s cousin Tate snuck away from the protected area encompassing their homes and ended up getting snatched by the kragen, Nyx. It took almost two weeks—and a battle against some truly scary Mercesti—to get her back.
Sophia had been among those who left in search of Tate. She didn’t think it would help matters to point out that she fared just fine without a weapon of any kind. Her mother probably wouldn’t take kindly to the reminder of the danger she’d been in, regardless of the outcome.
“I know that there will be things that happen outside of our control,” her mother said. “Tate didn’t plan to get herself stranded so far from home, but she was able to rely on the skills we taught her to survive. I want you to be able to do the same, and that includes having the ability to wield weapons effectively to defend yourself and others.”
Sophia huffed again. In her mind, there was more than one way to defend against threats. Weapons were the most archaic way and of no interest to her. She felt that she could solve any number of issues through the equipment in her lab much better than could be resolved on a battlefield.
In point of fact, she was working on developing a serum to combat the effects of Nyx’s toxin, a serum that could be administered to anyone who would be around the kragen on a regular basis. Now that Nyx was a seemingly permanent resident in the area, Sophia worried about one of her younger siblings or cousins—all of whom loved to play with the large creature—accidentally coming into contact with her paralyzing toxin.
Unfortunately, she recently realized that she wasn’t progressing much with her efforts. She decided that she needed more information from Nyx’s Estilorian friend, Zachariah. The enigmatic Mercesti male had developed an antitoxin that could be administered after the toxin had been introduced. Sophia hoped to extend his efforts to develop something more proactive. In effect, a vaccine.
“I’ll never get a moment’s rest if I don’t think you can protect yourself if anything ever happens to you,” her mom said.
Guilt rushed through Sophia at the words. She could only imagine how much stress she had put her parents through during her absence while rescuing Tate. Hanging her head, she gave her mom an apologetic look.
Her mother shook her head in response. “Just don’t forget again, okay?”
Sophia nodded, causing her mother’s hand to lift up and down.
“Now, since it’s surprisingly warm today considering autumn has arrived, those of your cousins who did participate in today’s training are going to head over to the waterfall for a swim. Why don’t you go get changed and join them? It’s probably the last swim you’ll have until late spring.”
The idea of a swim with her family sounded enjoyable, and it might give her a chance to chat with Zachariah about the antitoxin. She nodded again.
Her mother got awkwardly to her feet and winced as she stretched, rubbing her belly with one hand as she pressed against her lower back with the other. “Phew. I’m ready for this baby to arrive. My back is killing me.”
Sophia debated shifting back so she could help her mother, even though she’d be naked when she did. Then her mom smiled and caught her gaze.
“I’ll be fine, sweetie. You can wait to shift until you get to your room. Besides, Quincy is still watching.”
Despite her concerns about her mother, that gentle reminder was enough to have Sophia dashing in her panther form into the house. Being seen naked by Quincy was the very last thing she needed.
Quincy started down the hill as soon as Sophia loped away. He had seen Olivia’s grimace when she stood up after speaking with her daughter. As both a friend and the Estilorian who served as the obstetrician for Olivia and her sisters, Amber and Skye, he was concerned by her obvious discomfort.
“Do you need any assistance, Olivia?” he asked.
He stopped a couple of feet from her, studying her for physiological indicators of how she felt. He knew that these last days before the projected due date were particularly wearying on the expectant mother. Her energy and abilities weakened as she prepared for the birth. It was one of the reasons that Olivia and her sisters had remained behind when their firstborn children recently ventured away from the protected homeland.
Her pupils and breathing were normal now, he was pleased to note.
“I sure do,” she answered with a grin. “Can you get Sophia to quit skipping out on her training sessions?”
His lips twitched. “Are you sure you don’t have something less challenging for me? Maybe a previously unknown pain, or a dire threat to your person I could possibly avert?”
“I can hear you,” Sophia called out.
The irritation in her voice had Quincy grimacing. “Sorry,” he said loudly toward the open door of the house. Then, more quietly, he said, “Oops.”
Olivia smiled and waved it off. “Sophia deserves the knock. She’s terrible about participating in the training sessions and she knows it.” Her voice rose in volume when she added, “I’ll never let her leave home again if she doesn’t start taking this more seriously.”
“Yeah, yeah…I get it,” Sophia replied in a grumble.
Quincy shook his head. “Well, let me know if you experience any signs of the baby’s impending arrival, okay? If you’d be more comfortable with me sticking around here instead of joining the others at the waterfall, I’d be happy to.”
“You’re very sweet, Quincy. Thanks.” She once again ran a hand over her belly. “But I think we’re still okay for now.”
“All right. Then I’ll go wait for Sophia and the others near the training paddock. You know how to find me if you need me.”
“Absolutely.” Olivia smiled and turned to walk back into the house. “And if you happen to give Sophia another lecture on the importance of learning to defend herself in hopes it might penetrate her hard head, I wouldn’t mind a bit.”
“Sure thing,” he said.
As he walked toward the training paddock, he considered Olivia’s concern for Sophia’s well-being. It very closely mirrored his own. He clearly remembered the challenges he and Sophia faced together in their pursuit of Tate all those weeks ago. Sophia had nearly been killed. The fear and anguish he’d experienced while treating her injuries surely reflected what Olivia would have felt in his place.
Why wouldn’t it? he mused now. After all, they both loved her.
He supposed the biggest difference was that Sophia didn’t have any idea how he felt about her. And he had yet to figure out how to change that.