Every nerve in her body tightened, shock stealing her voice. She gaped at Ali as he fell into step beside her, but managed not to trip over her own feet. No one snuck up on her. Certainly no human. Had she been that distracted? That careless? The snarl of warning she expected from her tiger never came. Instead, the beast watching Ali from inside her tilted its head with a strange interest. The thief had managed a perfect ambush and her beast was…impressed.
Anara gritted her teeth, refusing to give him the satisfaction of asking how he’d caught up to her. “No thank you.”
“I insist.” He put a hand on his chest as if he would offer her a bow, then reconsidered. He fidgeted a moment, his lips twitching as if trying to smile, but failing. His shoulders slumped. “I upset you. I didn’t mean to, but I did. You must let me make it up to you.”
“You are drawing attention to us. Go away.” She looked ahead, concentrating on her progress instead of the pleading tone in his voice.
“Not as much attention as a beautiful woman walking home alone at night with a cart full of unsold wares. Really, you should have chosen a smaller inventory. People will think you’re a poor businesswoman.”
Again he fidgeted, and this time Anara spared him a look. Ali wasn’t usually this restless. Her attention caught on a bulge under his caftan and she froze, anger seizing her spine. “Idiot,” she bit out. “You have no wish to escort me home. You only want to use me and my cart as cover for that obvious bulge in your clothes.”
The grin that spread over his mouth then was equal parts amusement and mischievousness. When he spoke again, his voice was lower, suggestive. “It is a noticeable bulge, isn’t it?”
Anara inhaled slowly, holding on to her temper only because making a scene would bring more scrutiny. “Please, go away. I haven’t planned this event with such care only to have a petty thief ruin it by traipsing after me and calling all manner of attention.”
“I am no petty thief,” Ali corrected her. He swept into her path, forcing her to bring her cart to a halt as he gave her a wink from behind a curtain of black hair. “I am a prince of thieves.”
She started to answer that boast with an appropriately scathing retort, but something about the way his attention kept falling to the lower half of her face distracted her. He’d been staring at her lips from the moment he’d stopped her. Why—
He’d never seen her mouth before. Until now, she’d always escaped the heist before he mounted a pursuit, plucking her treasure from its hiding place and vanishing before he’d made his haphazard selection. But this time he’d followed her. Worse, he’d caught her.
Her lips tingled under his scrutiny. No man looked at her unveiled face. Certainly no man was permitted to gawk in such a blatantly…aroused way. Now that she’d noticed, she became painfully aware of the desire perfuming the air between them. She was used to that, used to the interest his body showed her even though he’d never spoken of his attraction in more than a few flirtatious words—light, playful banter. But as he stared at her, his arousal thickened, becoming more real than it had been inside. Or perhaps it only felt deeper because he was looking at her bare face.
Again she waited for her beast to show some sign of anger at his audaciousness. He was little more than a pickpocket—and a human. His bold attention should have been an affront to her beast, an insult that he would put himself forth in such a way, dare to court a Caspian, the rarest of the tiger shifters, blessed with the gift of changing shape by the gods themselves.
But once again, her tiger just stared. Watching. Studying.