There's a moment that she doesn't know how to respond. Everyone is watching, waiting for her answer, and her mind races for a second.
"Alright," she says, and Jake's shoulders slump in relief. The cake's the dealbreaker and she lets him pull her up. He doesn't let go of her hand, and she just then realizes how warm his skin is. Martin is still making loud, defeated noises into the carpet. Theo's talking to Kim and showing her how to shoot a rubber band. But somehow everything fades away, just white noise in the background, like she's shut her ears off.
She wonders if he can feel her sweaty fingers or hear her unsteady heart.
"You're cold," the Alpha says, as if in surprise, and Lyn nods. "Like, really cold."
The panther smiles. "It's been that way for a pretty long time."
"Tell me about it?"
Her first instinct is to say no, but really, how much can it hurt? "Okay. Over cake, of course."
When they're sitting across from each other at the table, it suddenly feels like it could hurt a lot more. Something suddenly occurs to her. "Wait. If I tell you my story, then you have to tell me yours."
"What-?" He cuts off, looking down at the table. Lyn takes the chance to place a spoonful of sweetness in her mouth. Outside, there's a sudden roar of laughter, Rachel's being the loudest. She's grateful that she shut off her ears earlier. "Alright," he says when the noise dies out. "I will. But you go afterwards."
"My mom died in a car crash a long time ago. It's why Billy's in a wheelchair." He stops, as if waiting for her to remark, then continues when she doesn't.
The Alpha begins with what an imprint is to wolves. He tells her about a girl named Bella that he met four years ago, a girl he fell in love with that never was his imprint. Jake describes her with no emotion, his face unreadable as he talks about how she used him. When he finishes with her child and the one night a year ago that he finally knew that he didn't love her anymore, Lyn's left wondering if that's why he's so tired all the time.
But he's not done.
He informs her that one day, he was in a store with two pack members. "A girl walked in," Jake murmurs as Lyn takes a bite of cake, her heart sinking for some reason, "And was so tough and funny that she made me laugh for the first time in months.
"I knew that I didn't deserve her to be my imprint. But she locked eyes with me and something in me said, 'yes, it's okay, she can be yours', and it was like the world finally started being nice to me."
Jake stares at her. "Lynette." It's the first time he's said her name, and it vibrates through her body, down to her fingers and toes. "I might fall in love with her, and I might not. But I know that I could if I wanted to. She matters to me because before I even saw her, she made me feel like maybe I wasn't so ruined and stupid."
She chews and swallows. "My mom's name was Natasha." His eyes flash at the past tense with something she can't name.
"Continue," Jake murmurs, his voice husky and low.
"Natasha Parker, previously Natasha Foreman. My dad, Nathan, is Alpha of my pack, the panthers. My uncle says I look like my mom." Slightly off topic, she clears her throat and looks away from Jake, feeling his stare. "Anyway.
"My dad was pretty old when I was born. He was seventy, and my mom was thirty. But, you know, he was shifting, so he didn't age." She steals a glance up at Jake to see him still watching intently, not bothered by her confession.
"Go on," the Alpha rumbles, taking a bite of cake.
Lyn begins to talk, the words coming slowly. "It was in west Texas, in a city named Collem. I was eleven, in fifth grade, and my dad had just gotten injured with my uncle, trying to wipe out a group of vampires in the neighborhood.
"I'd just come back from school. My mom worked from home, for a big company. I can't remember which." She clears her throat and puts her spoon down, staring at it. "Nathan - my dad - was healing from crushed ribs and a broken leg. My uncle was better, but he was in Utah, for the weekly council meeting. Betas take place as Alpha if the Alpha's injured.
"Nathan was sleeping. And I was doing my math homework. I remember thinking that it was too easy for me."
Lyn laughs quietly and picks up the spoon, staring at it. From the other room, Quil shouts something indistinct, and Rachel giggles wildly. Jake stays silent, watching her. "And then my mom screamed, very loudly. They didn't touch Nathan, though. They thought he was going to die by himself. He did kind of look like crap, with bandages and dried blood everywhere.
"They took me and Natasha. She already had a knife in her stomach and I knew she was going to die. I knew we were both going to die.
"We were locked in a room, no food or water." She takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly. Her mouth turns dry. "It wasn't anything like in the Hollywood movies; in those you get to say goodbye. The lights die out in their eyes. I was just sleeping and in the morning she wasn't alive anymore."
Jake stands up suddenly, spoon falling and clattering on the table as Jared says something to make Rachel screech. Well, that's it, Lyn thinks. She's scared him off for good. Freaky imprints with baggage are not cool.
But he makes his way over and sits in the chair next to her, closer, then turns so he's facing her. His eyes are magnetic, and the hollow ache in her chest lessens slightly. "Keep going."
"On the sixth day I was almost dead and they took me. They put me on a table, and I was too tired to do anything when they bit me."
All the breath in him rushes out in an instant, but he motions for her not to stop.
"They were trying to turn me into one of them, I think, but I have magic blood. The regular process means that after three days, I should be a vampire, but I had enough power still that I was fighting the venom. After a week, my body couldn't take all the pressure and I shifted into a cougar.
"Vampire blood gives me enhanced speed, strength, and power. I killed every single vampire in the building." She blinks rapidly. "I escaped and ran back to Collem. Arth was there."
"Oh my god," Jake whispers, russet skin paling.
Lyn looks up at him then. "Should I stop?"
The panther licks her lips and steels herself. "Arth's the Alpha of the Bear pack. He's, like, six hundred years old." At this, Jake looks at her sharply, but she doesn't stop. She stares at the wall as she talks. "I couldn't change back. Somehow he knew what I'd become, and he ground up one of his claws into water and I drank it.
"It had enough minerals to give me control of the venom in my body. That's why I'm so cold all the time."
"And why you drink out of that metal container."
She nods. "Some days are . . . worse than others."
"I'm sorry," Jake finally says. "I am."
Lyn finally gathers up her courage and looks at him, searching for any indication in his face showing that he knows he got the imprint that's not quite a person. He knows that there's something dark in her body, creeping into her limbs. But he only looks pained, for whatever reason unknown to her.
"It's not your fault," she says.
"I know," he replies softly, his warm breath touching her face, "I'm sorry that you had to go through it alone."
"It's not your fault," she says again, her gaze going from one of his dark eyes to the other.
Jake looks sad, so sad when he touches her cheek. It's then that she realizes how close they are, that she's tilting her head up to look at him, that their knees are nearly touching. That his eyes have a ring of hazel around them, that he might be the most beautiful person she's ever seen, looking as if there's nothing wrong with her even though she's rotten with venom inside.
"I'm sorry that it had to happen to you," Jake whispers, breath smelling like cake frosting, and for a second she loses track of what he's talking about.
He's closer now, noses nearly touching as she murmurs "It's not your fault" against the skin of a boy she met nine hours ago. A boy that could fall in love with her soon. A boy that she might fall in love with, if she even can. She thinks that she might be able to. It's then that his hand moves to the back of her neck and his other pulls at her hip.
And it's over, all over. Something inside her chest fills, and her body doesn't feel so rugged and broken down. Jake makes a soft noise against her mouth and her arm is in his hair, fingers tangling around the disheveled strands and catching knots.
She thanks her inner lucky stars that she brushed her teeth that morning as he pulls back to swallow. Lyn wipes the corners of her mouth with the hand that was on his shoulder, and it occurs to her that she's smiling.
When he smiles back, the corners of his eyes crinkle and something happens to her heart. Jake laughs. Suddenly they're both laughing, and she feels a lot better than she's ever felt and oh gosh, she's so happy.
He kisses her again, and that's how Martin and Kim find them. She pulls away, waiting for one of them to make a snide remark, but Kim just gives them a watery grin before clapping. Martin sits down at the table and starts eating the rest of the cake, the only indication that he saw anything being the twitch under his eye.
"You guys are so cute," Kim exclaims.
The look Jake gives her is full of exasperation, and he seems so fed up that it's humorous. A laugh bursts out of her before she leans into him, letting his heat melt away the cold. As if reading her mind, his lips brush her forehead and she feels the icy venom inside her belly curl away, almost as useful as the bear tooth minerals.
The smile that breaks out over his lips tells her that she's as good as gone.
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