With Strength and Steel
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2012 by Silverwolf691

I watched him as he crossed the floor, his movements agile, beautiful, deadly. And he was coming for me. My heartbeat picked up a little and I found myself breathing a little deeper, trying to catch a whiff of him through the hundreds of other scents that permeated the mall food court.

One moment, I was lost in thought, sipping on my milkshake and the next, my eyes locked on his unmistakable form. His lips twisted just slightly, giving me a small smile as he drew closer. I felt an answering smile slide onto my face, my body temperature increasing as I flushed with pleasure at seeing him.

"Is this seat taken?" Talon inquired, nudging the chair across from me that currently held my feet. I pretended to deliberate for a second before dropping my feet to the floor with another smile.

"How was your trip?" I asked as he draped his rain-spotted leather jacket across the back of the chair before sitting. He'd been gone for a week, like he usually was, and I'd missed him.

"Same old," he replied with a shrug.

"You're no fun," I told him, scowling. "Did you bring me back anything?" Looking eager, I took an enthusiastic drink of my shake.

His eyes traveled over my face, his beautiful amber orbs shining dimly as he looked me over. "Maybe." I just rolled my eyes, making him chuckle briefly. "Did you miss me?" he asked, leaning forward on his forearms.

"Maybe," I replied airily, enjoying his expression before reaching across the small table to lay my hand on his wrist. My thumb rubbed lightly across the back of his hand, his skin smooth and warm.

I drank him in, his tanned face perfectly setting off his pitch-black hair, smooth forehead with dark brows perched over his gorgeous amber eyes. His nose and ears bore a slight red tinge from the cold, the color a little lighter than his full lips, a light dusting of dark stubble gracing his jaw and upper lip. Talon Ciar was the star of many a woman's fantasies, but only I could call him mine.

I watched as his lips moved into another small smile, realizing then that I'd been staring. I felt my cheeks heat up and dropped my eyes to my hand on his arm; only he had that effect on me. Being a Shape Shifter and growing up with Werewolves had pretty much erased embarrassment and propriety but I couldn't seem to remember that when he looked at me.

"When did you get back?" I asked, trying to regain my composure.

"About an hour ago," he replied, moving his arm so that he could hold my hand in his. It was oddly intimate, the way his fingers danced across my palm. It might have been because we'd had so little physical contact outside of the dojo in the four years we'd known each other. It might still have been that way if not for the attack on my father's pack and the subsequent battles involving his now-dead brother, Zaire. It was because of his fear of losing me that he'd finally made his feelings known. "I went home, took a shower and went looking for you."

Irrational pleasure coursed through me at his words; the thought that he had almost immediately come looking for me made me feel special.

"Did you have any plans for tonight?" he asked me, one of his long-fingered hands still holding mine captive while the other rubbed up and down my forearm, making me want to purr. I couldn't help but enjoy and cherish his every touch and caress, wanting more and knowing I could have it.

"Not really." I gave him a slight shrug so that he didn't let go of me, watching over his shoulder as a group of rowdy teenagers passed through. "Why?"

"I thought I might take you out to dinner, maybe do a little dancing if you're up for it." His tone was light, not quite careless but not far from it. It was the tone that suggested he wouldn't mind changing his plans if I wanted him to. It was a little disconcerting having him behave like my interests were important. I wasn't used to having my wants attended to, much less my desires catered to.

"Sounds good," I told him with a small smile. "Is it fancy or casual?"

"It's a surprise," Talon whispered against my knuckles as he raised my hand to his lips. The gesture was so sweet when compared to the stereo type of his true nature. A Demon being sweet? Who'd of thunk? I gasped a little when he raised his eyes to mine and saw the smoldering, raw need that caused his eyes to flash brighter momentarily before he released me. I could tell he needed to take life essence; all Demons needed it to survive. But in his eyes I also saw his desire for me, raw and presented to me like a gift I could refuse if I wished.

I wasn't that stupid. I wanted him, too.

I felt my face heat up again and was about to suggest we take care of both things when my cell phone rang.

"Of course," I groaned, my caller I.D. telling me it was my aunts' shop. "Hey, what do you need?" I answered, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.

"Did Talon find you?" Aunt Gene's voice called into my ear a little loudly. Sometimes she forgot I had a cat's hearing. Literally.

"Yeah, he did," I replied, holding the phone away from my ear as a loud clamor erupted in the background. "What's going on?"

"Target practice," she replied and I groaned. "Yeah, something like that. Listen, I need you to run by a few places and pick up some things." She listed off what I needed to get and we hung up.

"Sorry," I told him, putting my phone away and gathering up my trash.

"Don't be," he told me, "we have tonight. I think I can last that long," he added playfully.

"Hmm," I replied, intrigued. "I look forward to it, then." He walked me to my car, my poor Toyota looking out of place compared to the Mercedes parked beside it. The rain had slacked off, the skies clearing up enough to let a few rays of sunshine through. "I guess you don't need a ride home," I commented, nodding to the Mercedes, Talon's usual car.

"No, I have a few stops to make myself."

I reached for the door but found myself pressed against it and turned to face him. His hands gently captured my face as his lips touched mine, the kiss quickly turning furious. I was satisfied to see I wasn't the only one breathing hard when we broke apart, his fingers gently trailing down my face. His eyes were bright with hunger for me and I shivered in anticipation.

"I'll see you tonight," he told me, reigning himself in after planting another brief kiss on my lips. I waited until he started his car to get into mine, waving when he honked at me before leaving the parking lot. Yep, I had it bad for him.

I ran my errands in a state of growing excitement, ignoring anything that might have brought my mood down. It was with impatience that I waited out the rest of my work day, anticipation lending me nervous energy so that I couldn't sit still. My aunts shared speculative looks when they thought I couldn't see, knowing exactly the cause of my restless behavior. By the time six o'clock hit, they were fair shoving me out the door. I raced home, eager to spend time with Talon.

I'd yet to discover a suitable relationship title for him. He was much more than a boyfriend and the term "lover" wasn't quite accurate. Most of the time I simply thought of him as mine, which felt good and right. I knew I loved him and that he loved me, which was all that really mattered.

I listened to my messages as I plugged my cell phone into the charger and sorted my mail, not really paying any attention until I heard Talon's voice.

"Hello, Ramirez." Even through a recording, the sound of his voice was enticing. "I imagine you're just getting home. I'll be there to pick you up at a quarter till seven. Be sure to look on your bed." The machine was out of messages, which was just as well, since I was already running up the stairs to my room.

Laying on my bed was a wide, flat box, the kind that department stores put clothes in. Right after we got together, Talon had asked if he could give me gifts. I'd laid down a few rules and he'd stuck to them quite well. The first thing he bought for me was a giant stuffed frog that now sat in the chair in my room. The next was a beautiful wind chime. We hadn't discussed clothes and I wasn't sure what to expect.

Deciding it could wait a few more minutes, I jumped into the shower, making sure my legs were perfectly smooth and I was very clean. I spent an extra few minutes using a blow dryer on my hair so that it was mostly dry until I couldn't stand it anymore and returned to examine what was in the box.

I carefully pulled the lid off, picking up the little piece of paper that was laying on top of the tissue paper.

I saw this and couldn't help thinking of you.


Setting the note aside, I pushed aside the tissue paper and gasped.

It was a dress, but the most beautiful dress I'd ever seen. It bore no label and was made of silk, dyed expertly from white at the top and darkening through various shades of blue until it reached black at the hem. It was a column-style cut, the bodice snug with a moderate plunge that didn't show my tattoos, cords that crisscrossed from just under my breasts to tie at the left hip, the skirt flowing out like a light curtain around my legs. Once I got it tied and settled just right, I realized there was also a slit in the skirt that stopped about six inches from my right hip.

I looked into my full-length mirror and stared in wonder. The dress fit me perfectly, almost like it was made for me. Knowing Talon, it probably was. I had just enough time to apply a little eye makeup and dig out a pair of black wedge sandals before I heard Talon's knock at the door.

"It's open!" I yelled, switching my usual stud earrings for some dangling ones and applying my favorite perfume oil to my pulse points. Just as I was securing my hair out of my face with a barrette, he came into my bedroom looking fabulous in a dress shirt, tie and slacks with what looked like a cape draped over his arm. "Hi," I said softly, turning to face him while still seated at my little vanity.

"Hi back." He took a moment to look me over, his mouth turned down in a small frown.

"What?" I asked, nervous and worried as he came towards me.

"I feel severely underdressed," he told me, extending a hand to help my rise to my feet, the old-fashioned gesture making me feel special. "You look beautiful." Drawing me into his arms for a kiss that was too brief, he asked, "Are you ready?"

"Almost." I reached into my jewelry box and pulled out a piece of jewelry that was the only concession to my rules with Talon. It was a necklace, a chunk of raw blue crystal wrapped in silver wire and hung on a simple silver chain; he'd given it to me for my twenty-eighth birthday two weeks ago. I could sense some sort of magic within the stone, but didn't know what it was and decided against asking; probably a locator spell.

We rode out of town in his Porsche 911 GT2 (I'd had to ask so I could look it up later), passing the time talking about my week while he'd been away. The sun had barely set, so the air was still warm, though damp from the earlier storm.

The restaurant we arrived at had valets, coat checkers, and required reservations at least a week in advance; now I understood the dress.

I tried not to stare as we were led to our table, but it was really difficult. Crystal chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, fountains were placed here and there, some with actual fish! There was even a dance floor with actual musicians providing the music.

Talon waved off the host, pulling my chair out himself and seating me before taking his place across from me.

"Wow," I told him, speaking softly, my eyes still roaming. The table was set with crystal glasses, scented candles and actual silver utensils, aside from the silk tablecloth and the Egyptian cotton napkins.

"I'm glad you like it," he returned just as softly. "I wanted to take you somewhere special and Marcus suggested here."

I was shocked. "This place must be good, then," I managed to say just as the black-tied waiter arrived.

We spent the entire meal talking about the various places in the world he's been and the places I'd like to visit someday. The food was phenomenal and I was glad I had a high metabolism to burn off what I'd eaten. When he asked me to dance, I was beside myself.

I felt like an important lady of stature as he led me to the dance floor before taking me in his arms. There were other couples but I had eyes only for Talon. He kept it simple, nothing more complicated than what he used when we were goofing off. He dipped me gently at the end of the song, giving me an equally gentle, though lingering, kiss before leading me back to our table, his hand possessively placed on my lower back. The gesture didn't bother me; growing up with Werewolves and their possessiveness meant that I actually liked it, despite my feline nature.

But, then again, all felines are territorial, too.

We were barely seated again when our waiter arrived with dessert. It was cold, creamy and sweet, with real, fresh-made whipped cream on top. I didn't know what it was, but it was perfect.

"I think I'm jealous," Talon said, a smirk twisting his lips and laughter dancing in his eyes as he watched me scrape the bottom of the dish. He reached across the table and wiped some cream that I'd missed from my bottom lip, bringing it to his mouth. "Hmm, sweet."

I couldn't help the blush that flooded my cheeks, nor the surge of arousal his gesture instilled in me. In the years since I'd quit dating, I'd forgotten how thrilling it was to be looked at and treated like I was special. Talon was everything I expected he would be and more.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Talon asked me a little later as we pulled out of the restaurant parking lot.

"Yeah, I did," I told him, smiling as I snuggled into the cape-like jacket he'd brought for me. It had turned chilly and rained a little more while we'd been dining and I was grateful that he'd brought it along, even if I wasn't actually cold.

"Did you have anything else planned for the evening?" I asked, not entirely innocently, glancing at the clock on the dashboard - 9:50 pm; the night was still young and, seeing as how today was Monday, I didn't work tomorrow.

"I'm sure I could come up with something." He shot me a look as intense as earlier, if not more so, reaching over to run his knuckles across my cheek, taking a tiny amount of my life essence. Not nearly enough to satisfy the hunger I could see lurking in his eyes, but enough to get my blood racing. Taking life essence could produce a euphoric, arousing sensation if the taker chose and, man, was he choosing!

"If you don't stop that," I growled at him, "we're going to have issues."

"Oh, really?" He withdrew his hand as he swerved around a pack of slow drivers, zigzagging across all four lanes on the highway. "And what kind of 'issues' would we have?" His tone was teasing but he kept both hands on the steering wheel.

"The kind that involve tickets for reckless driving and indecent exposure." I watched his eyebrows shoot up his forehead with a smug smirk that turned into a full-blown chuckle as he increased his speed. "So," I continued as he took the turn off that would lead us back to our stretch of highway, avoiding the small city of Murdock altogether, "are we going back to your place or mine?"

"Marcus is supposed to be gone for the next two days and-" he cut off as his cell phone buzzed. He looked at the screen for a brief second, his smile disappearing. "Marcus?"

"Get home now," I heard Marcus say. "We've got problems."

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