I was bored of staying indoors all the time, so I had West haul me—at his insistence—out of doors so I could sit on the back porch of the Packhouse and watch the pups play. School had let out for the day, and some of the older kids who had younger siblings argued with the smaller ones who wanted to continue to romp and mess around with their contemporaries, and I was just happy enough to be out of the house and watch them from the safety of the covered porch.
The sporadic rains had given way to a few days of warm sun and cloudless skies, and it was on a Wednesday when I was kicking back with an iced tea in my hand, splayed out on a porch swing and feeling no pain.
God bless Percocet.
My leg was healing nicely, thanks to my shifter genes, and the doc was thinking I could get it removed earlier than expected. Dr. D. winked at me when he said I must come from a strong bloodline, but I knew it had all to do with the mate bond I held with West. A bond we had yet to give in to and solidify with his mark on my neck.
My hesitance was only partially due to the fact that I was recuperating from my ‘fall’ off the rapids. Mainly, I wanted West and I to get to know each other better, though that was a little bit abnormal for a shifter, who had a tendency and mark and mate their other half in swift succession.
But I wasn’t like Paul, who marked his Luna as soon as he saw her, and West was not pushy when it came to us marking each other. He was patient, gentle. Everything one would want in the other half of their soul, even if I begged to be taken roughly from behind as he mounted me and proclaimed his dominance.
I wanted both sweet and savage, an oxymoron I didn’t know how to untangle and make sense of.
Besides, if West marked me, I would go into heat in less than a week. I wanted to be fully recuperated by then.
There was nothing less alluring than wearing a big walking boot or a cast to bed for some sexy time. I’d probably end up knocking poor West out if I moved the wrong way and caught his head with the heavy plaster. Denario said he’d give me another few days and take the cast off so I could finally walk freely. Already my limp was gone. The Percocet doses were getting smaller, and I didn’t need them as often, just if I was pushing myself too hard or too fast.
Another teen stopped by on his way out of the Packhouse, glancing at me before his eyes moved over the scrum of squealing toddlers and tykes. He was searching for someone—or something—and when his eyes landed on the smallest of the bunch, a tiny little girl who was playing at the edges of a mud puddle, his face broke out in a loving grin.
“Younger sibling?” I guessed, kicking my good foot off the wood of the back porch so I could swing.
“Yep, the youngest in a set of six,” he told me. “Name’s Carter. I hear you’re the Beta’s new mate—Lily?”
“Lucy,” I corrected with a smile and stuck my hand out. He moved forward to clasp it for a moment before sidling back to the top step of the stairs. “How old are you, Carter?”
“Seventeen,” he responded. “Eighteen in another couple of weeks.”
“You having a party for it?” I asked. “My mom tried to convince me to have one, but all I can say is that it was fortunate I decided on having a quiet celebration.”
That was rich. My 18th birthday consisted of nothing but heartbreak and a near-death experience. Celebration indeed.
“And you found West a couple days after your birthday? You’re fortunate,” he said with a smile. “I hope I can find my own mate as swiftly as you did.”
No. You don’t. You really, really don’t.
“Well, everyone’s path in life is different,” I said ominously. “Whether you find her in a day or in a year, it doesn’t matter. What matters is making the most of the time you have together. Look at Alpha Paul. He didn’t find his mate until after he turned 21. There’s a time and a place for every big moment in your life.”
“True,” he agreed wistfully. “And I suppose if she’s out there waiting for me, it’ll be worth it.”
“What’s your little sister’s name?” I asked with a nod towards the little one. She was getting dangerously close to the mud puddle and babbling happily to herself.
“Ella,” he replied. “She’s two and a half and already getting into more trouble than any of the rest of the kids when they were growing up. Even my younger brother, Alex, wasn’t as prone to getting into as many scrapes as she has. Clumsy little thing too, but she never cries. She just looks indignant when she sees a cut and then goes back to playing.” He laughed. “Once she came home with her dress completely wrecked. Bloody. My mom thought she was bleeding out. Couldn’t get her to stop playing even when she was bleeding like that, though.”
I could see the little squirt giggling playfully. She had finally scooted her butt to the mud puddle and was slapping her hands happily on it. Who wasn’t happy? Carter, when his lips turned down in a frustrated frown.
“Little rug rat. Gonna fall in one of those damn puddles one of these days,” he muttered bemusedly to himself. “Better go snatch her up before she ruins her damn dress. It’s her favorite.”
I watched as Carter walked off the porch, heading straight to the chattering and bubbly 2-year-old. I grinned as he picked her up easily and mollified her with a few whispers when she protested and wanted to get down. Her head nodded as if she was in disbelief at whatever he was saying, and she clapped her wet hands together a few times, to my amusement. A bit of the moisture splattered over Carter’s face, which only made Ella laugh even more. Shaking his head at her, he nodded goodbye in my direction before walking off with his little sister, the little one still babbling like a brook.
I was hearing things. I had to be. Only one person ever called me Lulu and—
I turned my head toward the familiar voice, my eyes widening as Zach’s tall form moved quickly over to me.
“Lucy, fuck!” he exclaimed as he moved in. “Your father and I have been looking everywhere for you! What happened to your leg?”
The pull that was there—the one I had been desperate to complete only weeks ago—was gone. With it, a numbness had taken over the part of my heart Zach had lived in, carved out and hollow, only to be filled by West’s devotion to me.
“I…I fell off the cliff. You saw me.”
Numb. Even my voice was devoid of emotion.
Zach came closer, his sparkling green eyes lighting up above the hollowed-out cheeks and dark circles that darkened his skin like shadows under his eyes. They were dimmed, haunting. The man looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, since…
“Fuck, I’m so glad to see you.”
I could hear his words, feel the hug he wrapped me up in. When he didn’t let go, though, I struggled. Not because I didn’t care for him anymore, but because I couldn’t afford to care too much. I had a mate. A new one. One who said he would be back—
“Who the fuck are you and why are you holding my mate?”
I felt Zach’s form stiffen around me only to pull me onto his lap and curl around me. Without me being at my best, there was little I could do except try to stand up. I eventually hobbled to my feet, West coming up and weaving an arm around me as he pulled me away from Zach.
“West, this is Zach, the Alpha-to-be of Arrowhead and my ex-mate.”
This time it was West who stiffened, looking down on me with dark eyes that bled from brown to amber. Possessive eyes, just as his stance trembled and seemed to grow larger as he scooted me behind him.
“What are you doing here?” West questioned harshly. “You rejected this female and she’s been gifted a second chance with me. You have no right to touch her so familiarly.”
A snarl rumbled from his chest, proclaiming his dominance over the visiting Alpha.
“I came to speak with your Alpha, mutt,” Zach growled out. “It was only happy coincidence to find my mate alive and well after taking a tumble down the falls. Now she can—”
“What? She can what, Alpha? Leave with you and watch you claim another female as your Luna?” Zach’s eyes widened in shock. “You’ve rejected her and she’s fine. Perhaps you can run along now and tell her parents she is alive and well and with someone who cares enough about her to damn the consequences and fight for his woman. I know all about what your father told you, and it was a lie, I tell you. He would have never had his own son killed. It would be like killing a part of himself. No matter what he said, he never would have gone through with it.”
Zach had the grace to look ashamed. His face ashen and grave, his gaze flickered to me before the truth sinks in. Slowly. Agonizingly.
An Alpha would never condemn their own blood to death, especially not his firstborn son—his heir. It was all a ruse to get him Zach heel. Artemis was as likely to kill Zach as I was likely to reject West.
“I’m sorry Zach, but this is what’s best now,” I told him, stepping out from behind West to catch his eye. “I don’t feel any of the pull I had towards you. It…it’s been replaced with one for West, and I could never ever reject him like you did me. It would kill me if I did.”
Taking a step forward, I watched his eyes glance down as my fingers twined with West’s larger, thicker ones. He brought my hand up to his mouth, kissing the back of my knuckles before placing the flat of my palm on his chest. I felt as his anger dissipated and his heartbeat slowed. My touch calmed him. He still had that predatory look in his eyes, the deep chocolate of them flickering between dark brown and an amber-gold hue.
Zach’s voice was pained, disconsolate. I didn’t want him—or really anyone—to feel the pain I did when I was rejected, but I had to tell him. We were finished. There was no going back—not since I found West.
“I’m sorry, Zach.”
I looked up at West, smiling sadly. His hand cupped my cheek and he leaned down, our mouths millimeters apart before he caught mine in a sweet, hungry kiss.
The roar of blood in my ears as my head spun away was loud. Louder than the sounds of Zach’s protests, the ensuing pleas, the groan that bubbled up from West’s chest and vibrating against me. The world could have gone up in flames around me, but all I felt was the sweet serenity of completion as West’s tongue tangled with mine.
We broke apart, our eyes studying each other, just the hint of a smile curving West’s lips as his thumb stroked my chin before pressing onto my bottom lip. I took it between my teeth—a warning. He was just as much mine as I was his, and I could be just as possessive.
A sniffle, loud and long, broke the moment, and my head slowly swiveled to Zach. Silvery tears streaked his face, the lost look in his eyes, like I had gutted him, was so real and heartbreaking that I felt a pang in my solar plexus. The pang of regret? No—one that felt his suffering only days ago, and I relaxed into West’s chest as he drew his arms around me, cradling me from behind.
“You’re lucky, you know,” I told Zach sadly. “My pain was visceral and emotional. It was…was so complete. At least you won’t feel the anguish I felt right before I tumbled over that cliff. At least you won’t feel like your heart was literally breaking in two.”
That’s when Zach’s face fell, like a crack had split it down the middle and anguish poured out.
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