That scent had drawn him closer while still on four paws. Too close. Wyatt had watched her fall from the rock. He’d had to dig his claws into the dirt to keep himself from charging toward her. He’d never been so careless before when on a search and rescue, but lime and coconut was his new favourite flavour.
“Keep talking, Poppy!” Wyatt had stepped away after she’d spotted him and shifted. He called her name to let her know he was coming, and he called in his position to the other searchers, saying he’d found her and would meet everyone at the bottom.
“I’m here. I’m here.” Her voice trailed off, exhaustion settling in. Wyatt emerged through the trees and rushed toward her, sinking to his knee beside her. It hit him. Hard. He placed a hand on the rock to steady his dizzy head. His mouth watered as she filled his senses. Poppy was his mate.
Hell, he had a mate. A little brunette with a waning, high ponytail and escapee strands fluttering around her face. A little bit of a thing that was here on vacation with her friends and ex-boyfriend. He’d heard her listing off the things to be grateful for as he’d moved out of her sight to shift.
“Hi, Poppy.” His voice was lower than normal. “My name is Wyatt. Can you tell me if you’re hurt anywhere?” He’d seen her land on her wrist that she still cradled against her chest. Mate or not, Wyatt had to keep himself in check.
“My wrist. I fell trying to climb up this.” She tapped her head on the rock behind her. “But I don’t think it’s broken. And I ache everywhere.”
He pulled a bottle of water from his pack and opened it, pressing it into her good hand. “Drink that while I take a look.” Wyatt held out his hand, waiting for Poppy to place her injured one in it. Let her put her trust in him.
She did with little hesitation, but ignored him as she took a large drink of water.
“Easy with that. Take it slow.” Wyatt turned her wrist back and forth, gently feeling the bones through her hand and her forearm. “A small sprain.”
“I’m okay.” Poppy pulled her hand back. His hands tingled like waking up after being asleep. He wanted the contact back. “I was trying to get to the river to find my way back to the trail.”
“You can’t get to it from this side of the ridge. It’s right there.” He pointed ahead of them. “But the ridge curves upstream.” She’d veered far away from the original trail.
“Oh. I should have stayed where I was.” The little bit wrinkled her nose.
“Yes.” Wyatt could lecture her, but there was no need to embarrass her. He took the water from her and replaced the cap.
“I saw a bear.” She straightened against the rock. “We should leave.” Her eyes searched the trees. The same trees he’d been weaving around a few minutes ago.
“The bear’s gone.” Wyatt kept his lips straight. The bear was crouched next to her.
“You saw it, too? You’re sure he’s gone?” Poppy hugged her wrist against her chest and set her other hand on the ground to push herself up.
Wyatt nodded. He slid his hands under arms to help her stand, but didn’t let go. “Are you sure you’re not hurt anywhere else?”
“I’m sure. I’m sore, but not hurt.”
“Okay, this is what we’re going to do.” Wyatt pulled out the harness. “We’re going to strap you to my back and I’m going to hike back down.”
“I can walk.” Poppy stepped back out of his reach. He strangled the urge to pull her back.
“You can, but you’re not going to. You’ve already walked this far.”
“Hate to break it to you, but so have you.”
Wyatt grinned and tilted his chin down. “I didn’t fall off a ridge.”
“How did you know I fell off a ridge?”
“Tracks. You’re tired. It’s getting late and we need to get back to town.” He gentled his voice. “Sorry, little bit. But I can hike faster, even with you on my back.”
“I should thank you instead of argue, huh?” Her little round nose wrinkled again.
“Yes, you should.” He smiled down at her, letting her know he wasn’t upset. Having her on his back wouldn’t be a hardship. “While we hike, you can tell me what happened.” Wyatt held out the legs of the harness and knelt in front of her. “Step in.”
“That looks real comfortable.” She stared at the straps rather than moved toward him, her dry tone making his lips twitch.
“You’ll be surprised. I’m extremely comfortable to ride.” He stretched his words with suggestion.
Poppy tilted her head. “Oh, you’re cute.”
Cute? His mate thought he was cute. That didn’t bode well for him.
She stepped into the harness and Wyatt stood while pulling it up. He held his breath while adjusting it over her ass and up her back. The hitch in her breath any time his hands grazed her body wasn’t lost on him.
“There, all done. Now, I’m going to crouch down and I want you to climb on my back like you would for a piggy-back.”
“I don’t think I’ve had a piggy-back ride since I was seven.” She inched closer, trying to hold the harness in place.
“That’s a shame. I’ve heard they’re fun.” He winked and was rewarded with a twitch of her lips.
“I don’t suppose there is anyone out there big enough to give you a piggy-back ride.”
“I have a brother and a couple of cousins that could manage.” Wyatt moved his pack to the front and turned in front of her, reaching behind him for the straps.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” And Wyatt wanted to make it happen. His lips split into a grin as he tried to figure out which of the three he could convince to go along with it.
Crouching down, he resisted the urge to pull her onto his back and instead waited for her to do it herself. “Lay yourself on my back and I’m going to lift your legs, okay?”
“You’d think this would be like riding a bike.”
He nearly groaned. “Nothing about this is like riding a bike.”
Poppy leaned forward and pressed herself against his back. Heat encased him, and his erection surged forth. He reached for her legs the moment she made contact. A little yelp escaped her as he took her weight out from under her.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you, little bit.” He shouldn’t be calling her anything but her own name—not until he had her back to town and safe—but the endearment spilled out.
“Now what?” Her breath brushed his cheek.
“I’m going to do up these straps and you’re going to let me carry your weight. And we’ll hike back to town.”
“That’s a long way with me on your back.”
“I’ll be fine.” Even if he wasn’t a shifter, her weight wouldn’t register. He strapped her into place and stood. “Tell me what happened.” Wyatt suspected it wasn’t the same story told by some of her friends. He started hiking while he waited for her to talk.
“I’m on vacation with a bunch of friends. One of them is my ex, so not a friend. But we had this trip booked before we broke up. I didn’t want to miss it. At the end of the hike, Mason said he wanted to talk. He…” She stiffened on his back.
“What happened, Poppy?” Wyatt asked, eager for the story that explained the evidence of the struggle up the ridge.
“He turned persistent.” She paused, as if choosing her words carefully. “Worried me a little, and I started walking backward, not watching where I was going. I fell over the edge. He left me there. Once I caught my breath, I tried to find my way back.”
Wyatt couldn’t respond, not without his own anger coming through. He heard what she tried so hard not to say.