Chapter 15 - Complicated Future
I honestly didn’t know how she did it. Life just kept throwing shit at Ray and she just kept gracefully moving through everything with only a couple of stumbles along the way. I was slowly getting more and more enraged by the week’s events, and for all intents and purposes, I was only a bystander. Ray was not a bystander. Circumstance and these fucking royals kept pushing her into the spotlight and it was not okay. It was so far from okay that I was actually starting to feel sick to my stomach as the need to protect her continually grew stronger.
What Ray needed was a break. What she needed was a goddamn vacation that was thousands of miles away from these power-hungry assholes that were nipping at her heels for any sort of attention. Or rather maybe it was what I needed. I needed to steal her away and take her somewhere where she would be safe and we could be together. I didn’t think I could get her to take a vacation right now, but maybe I could do something for her. Maybe I could give her just a moment of relaxation.
It was the very least that she deserved.
What looked like the entire Oakland Shifter Pact was waiting for us outside of the clan house. Almost before our car had fully stopped, Renata opened the back door and ran straight towards Tony. As soon as Tony saw his newly found mate, he also broke into a run and they literally jumped into each other’s arms and clung to each other with a fierce determination that I was a little envious of. The entire group of watching wolves started cheering and the entire scene radiated out so much happiness, joy, and hope that it gently washed away all lingering feelings of anger my very tiring morning had evoked. This moment was worth every single thing the royals had thrown at me today. Hell, this moment rebalanced the scales for a great many things that had happened over the last two weeks.
I had needed this moment.
And as much as I wanted to celebrate with the Oakland Pack, as much as my psyche could use the mental break and positive atmosphere, I just couldn’t make myself get out of the car to go join them. I just kept seeing the way that Renata looked at me back in the training rings and thinking about how I was wholly inadequate to give her everything she deserves. The list of people that I felt a bone-deep need to protect and provide for was quickly growing and I was no longer one hundred percent positive that I was strong enough to be everything they needed.
I looked over at Elijah who was still waiting in the driver’s seat and tried to convey just how overwhelmed and scared I was feeling. He studied my face for a moment and then reached over to squeeze my shoulder and I knew that he understood. Elijah would always understand and I knew that he would always be there to pick up my slack. He really was the best of us. I covered his hand with my own for a few moments and then retreated into the house under a heavy Cloak, leaving the guys to deal with the celebratory wolves.
I guessed that eventually, the party would move inside, so I ventured up the stairs to where I knew each of the guys had their own room. I hadn’t ever been in any of their rooms and felt a little hesitant entering their personal space without their permission or company. But when I looked into the first door on the right and saw a space that was so obviously Max’s, it was like I suddenly had a physical need to understand and further connect to my most compassionate guy.
I stepped into the middle of the room and slowly scanned the walls finding posters of colorful galaxies, infamous depictions of Einstein with his tongue sticking out, and what I think were blown-up images of cells or bacteria that were captured using a high-tech microscope. On the far wall there was a large, obviously often used desk with a desktop computer, and on his nightstand were two framed photographs. I sat on the edge of his bed and studied them. The first was an older photo of Max and Elijah as boys and both of them looked tired but happy as they wrapped one arm around each other’s shoulders and the other was raised into the air. In the background was a breathtaking aerial view, like if they had just climbed a mountain and were celebrating their achievement. I smiled at the childlike joy etched on each of their faces and idly wondered who had taken the photo. Neither Elijah nor Max ever talked about their family or the clan that they grew up in.
The second was a selfie photo and each of the guys had crammed their head as close to Max’s as possible and contorted their features into goofy faces. Well, everyone but Derik. He was to the far left and remained stoic, but you could tell he was forcing himself not to smile by the light twinkle in his eyes. It was an insanely happy photo and I felt myself starting to smile just looking at it. I needed a copy of this photo. I would get a wallet-size one and keep it with me at all times so that I could get a dose of happy whenever I needed one.
I hugged the photo to my chest, breathed out a huge breath of air, and fell back onto Max’s bed. I stared up at the ceiling and tried to make sense of all the swirling emotions and thoughts that were going through my head. I don’t really know how long I laid there lost in the crazy confines of my own mind but eventually, I felt the bed depress and a warm body was pressed to my side as someone laid down next to me. I turned my head to find that I was practically nose-to-nose with Max. My sweet, amazing Max that made me feel safe, cared for, and understood.
“Hey,” Max said in a soft voice and I felt his breath whisper over my skin.
“Hey,” I replied and just kept looking into his muddy brown eyes, and a part of me wanted to ask him to go take out his colored contacts.
“What are you thinking about?” Max asked in the same soft voice and I turned my head to look back up at the ceiling and huffed out another audible breath.
“Did you know that Heaven is a real place? Wiyot told me that he Traveled there and actually met an angel. Which means, if I wanted to, I could go to Heaven. Actual Heaven. Right now. That is something that I am capable of. And not just Heaven. I can also go to Hell. Do you think that if I went to Hell, I would find my father there?” I said in a rush without really thinking about what I was saying. It felt nice to just talk to someone that I trusted to just listen and not judge me. Jack and I hadn’t talked in what felt like forever.
“I think that if anyone deserves to go to Hell, your father does,” Max replied back and I reached out to find his hand and intertwined my fingers with his.
“I think my mother might also fall into the ‘deserves to go to Hell’ category. What does that make me? How am I supposed to come to terms with the fact my conception was this incredibly violent event between two evil people? That any way you look at it, I am a product of evil?”
Max squeezed my hand and let a sigh of his own before saying, “From everything I have heard, I don’t think your father was evil at the time of your conception. It sounds like he was a pretty good guy before the Hidden took him, and even after years of abuse he protected you when the rest of his clan wanted to kill you.”
“If I was worth protecting, then why in the world did he Compel me to do all of those horrific things as a child? Why didn’t he act like a real father for one second of my very long thirteen years with him?” I asked with a hard edge of anger in my voice.
Max took a moment to answer but eventually, he said, “I am in no way condoning anything that your father did and I one hundred percent believe everything he did to you was unacceptable and criminal. But I have heard of Valkyries going crazy and doing some pretty extreme things when someone they are linked to dies. The connection of a link is so strong, it is like you become one with your clan. They complete you and without them, you are not entirely whole. Your father was still the kind of person that would stand up to his clan and save his child the day that you guys escaped from the Northern City, but that same day every single person he was linked to died. That kind of magical backlash combined with the complete isolation that you two lived in for over a decade must have driven him crazy. Made him into something despicable that he didn’t even reflect the person he used to be.”
I took a moment to try to understand his point of view, but it was difficult for me to move past my iron-clad hatred for my father to see things from his point of view. I had an unconditional bias against that man and even after learning about the horrible things that were done to him, I just couldn’t find it in my heart to forgive him.
“The elder Gatekeepers said that I look like her. That I look like my mother. Maybe Samuel spent years punishing me because he knew that I was something that she had planned for and wanted. He was hurting her in the only way available to him and instead of being a person to him, I was just a conduit for his pain and hatred,” I said in a voice that broke with emotion. It was hard to admit your own flesh and blood wasn’t able to see you as a living breathing person with emotions and needs.
Max turned on his side so that he was now propped up and looking down at me. “The one thing that I do know, is that you could never be anything like your mother or your father. You are too good to ever hurt someone for your own gain,” Max declared in a steady voice and the lack of buzz in my head told me that he actually believed that. I didn’t have the same stead-fast conviction about this that he did, but it felt really good to hear him say it.
“Do you think it is my fate to become the fourth Gatekeeper and protect the Hidden from the human-bound Valkyries?” I asked as I looked up into his face.
Max tucked his lower lip in between his teeth and bit down as he thought over how to answer my question. The movement distracted me and I found myself focusing on his lips and wondering what would happen if I closed the small distance between us and tasted him. “I think it is a good thing that we are finally getting answers to why your Gifts are more powerful than normal and why they are acting up,” Max said, breaking my internal debate. “But no. I do not believe in fate. I believe in choices. You can choose to become the fourth Gatekeeper. You can choose to marry some royal prince and rule as a powerful and fair queen. Or you can choose some other path that isn’t clear to us yet. Your choices are yours to take. All of ours are.”
“What would you choose?” I said in a breathy whisper.
Max gave me a small side smile before saying, “I choose to say by your side. For as long as you will have me, I will choose you. I don’t care where we live or what clan we officially belong to. All I care about is staying with my brothers and you. The rest of it is, unfairly I know, in your hands.”
His words were like a living breathing thing that filled up the space between us and electrified the air. I was taking soft shallow breaths and I could feel my heart pick up its pace as it tried to beat right out of my chest. Slowly, giving him time to back away in case I was completely misreading this situation, I lifted my hand and cupped the side of his cheek. The clan bond that we had both been feeling since he first laid next to me on the bed intensified and I swallowed and licked my lips before saying, “I know it isn’t exactly a nice thing to say, but I never want to do to you what Jonas did to me. I like you, Max. Like, really really like you and am insanely drawn and attracted to you too.”
The side of his lips pulled up into a smile as I said that and his face inched that much closer towards mine. “That sounds like a pretty nice thing to say to me,” Max breathed out and I once again could feel his breath on my skin and felt a shiver of pleasure and anticipation run down my spine.
“Yes, but I also feel those same feelings for other people,” I admitted and forced myself not to break eye contact with him. He needed to know this. I wouldn’t lie to Max. I wouldn’t hurt him like I had been hurt.
“People?” Max muttered, his lips only hair breath away from mine.
“Connor, and Derik, and Blake, and - and- y-your brother,” I stuttered out because I was most afraid that Max would be appalled that I had a crush on both him and Elijah. Max pulled his head away from mine and my heart sank. But before I could be completely drenched in embarrassment and regret he mirrored my position and cupped my cheek with his hand and gently ran his thumb just under my lower lip.
“I know,” Max told me without one once of hurt or jealousy tinging his tone. “It is obvious that you care about all of us and that those feelings are only growing. The twins are not the most subtle people and have brought up the topic more than once. We have talked about it a little, but it never felt right without you as a part of that conversation. But I will say that we are all aware and open to whatever you want to do moving forward.”
“And by open you mean...” I started but let the sentence drop off because I didn’t know exactly how to put what I wanted into words. It just seemed like an extremely selfish dream to have.
Max’s eyes swiveled for a moment as he tried to look into both of my eyes when his face was this close before he answered in the same steady yet understanding voice, “We mean that we would be open to continuing to allow all of those feelings to grow. We mean that we would be open to a scenario where we all got closer to you because we believe your heart is big enough for all of us.”
I was now breathing even heavier and my heart was clearly audible as my pulse thundered away. “This is going to make me sound like a hypocritical bitch, but umm are you still dating Annabel?” I asked before my mental filter kicked in because being this close to Max while he told me that I could have everything my heart desired was really nerve-wracking.
“No,” Max breathed out and I felt something relax inside of me. The idea that Max was taken and seeing someone else had been bothering me for a while now, but I hadn’t been brave enough to bring it up to him. “You are the only person I want, or will ever want. If we do this, I promise to always be faithful to you.”
It was like he knew exactly what to say to soothe the lonely unwanted foster child within me and it felt really good to hear. In the next moment, it was like my body decided to override my brain and do what both my body and brain really wanted to do and I was kissing Max. I leaned forward and quite firmly pressed my lips against his and he let out this tortured sounding moan that lit my blood on fire. He immediately moved his hand to cup the back of my head and pushed me into the mattress as he returned my kiss with just as much passion and enthusiasm as I had used to start it.
I only had kissed one other person before, but this kiss was levels of magnitudes better than anything I had ever experienced with Jonas. Yes, the fact that we were both Valkyries elevated the experience as the clan bond bloomed and pulsed between us, but it was more than that. This was complete trust and intense attraction. I knew Max. I maybe even loved Max and that intensified every touch, sensation, and audible gasp as we explored every feeling erupting between us.
I was literally jolted out of the moment when my phone vibrated in my back pocket, sending unexpected sensations through my over-sensitized nerve endings. I jumped and Max pulled away from me to make sure I was okay. “Yes,” I said between panted breaths and then pulled out my phone as a silent explanation of what happened but I did not break eye contact with Max to look at the screen.
He must have thought I was looking for some sort of reassurance because he said in a very serious voice, “You can trust me. You can trust us. We will never do anything to hurt you.”
I couldn’t help the single tear that escaped my eye as my entire chest filled with this intense pressure, because he was telling the truth. Max wasn’t going anywhere and he wasn’t going to betray or use me like everyone else in my life had before the Oakland Clan had come into it. Even Jack had crossed that line. But even with all of my experiences with betrayal and pain, I believed Max with every part of my heart.
This was real and it was huge.
Maybe it was too huge for me to fully comprehend and deal with at the moment, so I took the coward’s way out and changed the subject. “I am trying to forgive what Jack did, but honestly every time I look at him a part of me sees what happened in that small dirty room. I just keep hearing all of the times that he told me that he would have my back and then feeling the overwhelming disbelief and hurt that coursed through me when I realized what he had done. I know in the grand scheme of things, what he did wasn’t that big of a deal and I am really trying to act like it doesn’t bother me but the truth is, it does bother me. It really, really bothers me and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Max reached out and pulled me towards him and rearranged us both until I was sitting on his lap and he was encasing me in an all-consuming hug. “Believe me when I say that you are not the only one that is furious at Jack and feels like they can’t express that anger. He is your protected and you are always going to want to protect him, even from your own anger. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to your pain. Because you do. You are completely justified in your feelings of betrayal and anger. Jack decided to do something and now he has to live with the consequences of those actions and I believe that you can still be supportive of Amy and provide them with protection without fully forgiving him. You can still love him unconditionally and be pissed off at him. Families do it all the time, and Jack and Amy are a part of your family. Just give it time and allow yourself to feel what you feel. Don’t hold it back to protect Jack, because frankly, he doesn’t deserve that from you anymore. And who knows, maybe allowing yourself to feel that anger will help you eventually get past it.”
“Well, I’m not going to get past it. That fucker is nowhere good enough to be your best friend. And I fucking hate him for what he did to you and how he made you feel at the hospital,” Connor growled out from the doorway and I jumped a little and turned in Max’s lap so that I could see him. An instantaneous spike of fear shot through me at the idea that Connor had caught me and Max, but then I reminded myself that Max had told me they were all open to this. I really looked at Connor and decided that while he looked angry, it wasn’t directed towards me. Probably it was just as he said - he was pissed off at Jack.
“Yeah, but we will play nice because we know he is important to you,” I heard Blake say and I leaned forward to see that he was standing right next to Connor. “Come on you two lovebirds. Derik finally kicked out all of the wolves and Elijah ordered a ton of thai food for lunch.” I blushed at the lovebirds comment but was hugely relieved when neither of them seemed upset about me and Max. Maybe this really could work.
Connor and Blake both turned and I heard their steps on the stairs as Max gave me one last squeeze before I climbed out of his lap. I followed the twins down to the main floor and looked down at my phone to see who had texted me.
Lawerance: The Oakland Pack and I cannot thank you enough. Luna was right. You are different. Come by the diner some morning for breakfast. My treat.
I actually stopped mid-step to reread the text a second and even a third time. Lawerance has been very wary, formal, and extremely careful around me from the very beginning. This text was a big step forward in the right direction. Maybe now he would realize that I wasn’t like the Collinses and that I don’t aspire to ever be so in the future. Maybe now we could start to build an actual friendship on equal footing. I smiled down at my phone and went to join the guys for lunch with a much lighter heart.
We all ate in the living room while watching this cooking show where the chefs all prepare meals from mystery ingredients called Chopped. Blake was very vocal about how disgusting most of the dishes sounded, and Elijah often commented about what he would make if given the same ingredients. It was low-key and normal and I loved every moment of it. After the episode ended, Derik got up and left the room for a while, and when he returned he looked a little uneasy. When I noticed that he was looking directly at me, I could tell right off that he wanted to talk to me about something alone, so I got up and went to him.
Derik gave me a tight smile that I had never seen before and for a moment I thought that he actually looked nervous. What in the world would make my fierce protector nervous? For a split second, I had this horrible thought that he might be under a compulsion again and my steps faltered. But then I remembered with a stunningly clear picture the cold determination that consumed Derik’s features while he was forced to attack me. This was not that. Derik was Derik and he wasn’t going to ever hurt me.
But Derik saw that instant of doubt in my face and the heartbreaking acceptance of that momentary fear damn near broke my heart. He still believed he was a monster and had no trouble believing I thought that of him too. He took a large step away from me and turned his palms up in a surrendering gesture. I immediately took two large steps towards him and placed both of my hands within his and held on as if my life depended on it. The move startled Derik and he looked down at me with confusion and apprehension.
“I trust you. Implicitly. It just has been a really long week and I am tired. Please don’t hold that against me,” I told him with conviction.
Derik took a deep breath through his nose and squeezed my hands in return before nodding his head and swallowing hard. “I actually have something set up that I thought might help with that, but I am rethinking if it was a good idea or not. The last thing I want to do is pressure you into something that you don’t feel fully comfortable with. Maybe, we should just go sit back down and continue watching the show,” Derik said, sounding nervous again.
“No,” I told him with a gentle edge to my voice. “Tell me your plan and I promise to be honest with you about if I am comfortable doing it or not. Trust is a two-way street. You have to trust that I am strong enough to decide what I will and will not try. That is the only way this is going to work.” Derik remained so still for a moment I thought he was even holding his breath, but after a few beats, he nodded his head and turned to lead me down the hall. He let go of one of my hands but kept the other securely in his palm as he pulled me into a room that Derik used as a home office.
Inside the office was a waist-high padded table that was covered with a couple of layers of sheets and had a round pillow-like thing with a hole in the middle sticking out from one end. I recognized it as a massage table from T.V., but I had never seen one in real life before. The blinds and curtains were drawn over the window so none of my watchers/bodyguards couldn’t look in. The darkened room was illuminated with the soft light of a half dozen candles making the entire room smell of lavender and sage. There was music playing so softly that it took me a moment to even identify that Derik had even thought to put on soft violin music.
I turned to him with a look of disbelief on my face that I couldn’t seem to morph into anything else. “Did you do all of this for me?” I said and my voice sounded just as surprised as I felt. No one had ever done anything close to this just for me before.
Derik shifted from foot to foot while he stood in the doorway, not allowing himself to enter the incredibly thoughtful room for some reason. “I umm. I have taken a couple of kinesiology and physical therapy classes at the local college and I thought that maybe after everything you have been through that you might want a massage,” Derik said, once again sounding nervous.
I was still speechless and walked over to the table to run my fingers over the really soft sheets. “I have never had a massage,” I admitted and found that my throat was actually tightening with emotion.
“I am going to be blunt here, and say that if you want one I will have to touch you. It wasn’t until I went to go get you that it hit me that might be the very last thing you want right now. I promise I won’t be offended if you don’t want this,” Derik said but the buzz in my head let me know that he was lying. He would be crushed if I told him that I didn’t want to do this because I didn’t trust him enough to touch me when I was vulnerable and laying on a table. “You can even choose one of the guys to do this instead. Max understands anatomy and I am sure Blake has given a massage or two before.”
I really didn’t like the idea of Blake rubbing his hands all over someone else and pushed that thought away as I turned to lean against the table so that I could look at Derik. “I want this. And I want you to do it. This is absolutely the most special and thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me. Thank you,” I told him honestly and his shoulders visibly relaxed.
We stood there just looking at each other for so long, that I was wondering what I was supposed to do next. “Umm, so do I like take off my clothes and get under the sheet like they do in the movies?” I asked, feeling completely embarrassed.
“No,” Derik was quick to say but I could have sworn that the trepidation in his eyes was now replaced with heat. “Keep your clothes on, but maybe change into a pair of shorts instead of wearing your jeans. And if you are comfortable with it, maybe you can take off your bra so that the strap doesn’t get in the way.”
I appreciated that he was making sure that I was going to remain comfortable with all of this because I didn’t know how I would feel about being in a room with Derik while I was naked and he rubbed his hands all over my body. Right now, a layer of clothes was a very good thing because all of a sudden, I felt like things were moving forward really quickly with the guys. I mean I had just made out with Max. I felt my cheeks heat as I thought about the possibility of kissing more than just Max and quickly nodded my head and went into my bedroom to change.
When I came back into the room with blue athletic shorts on and sans bra, Derik was sitting on the edge of the desk and watching me with an intensity that made a shiver run down my spine. It was the good kind of shiver too. He motioned towards the table and I crawled in between the sheets and settled on my stomach while placing my head in the cradle. I couldn’t see anything but a small circle of the floor and nervous butterflies started to gather in my stomach as I strained my hearing to try to gauge where Derik was and what he would do next. Without warning, I felt his fingertips pull the edge of the sheet up to cover my entire back and I jumped a little.
“Easy,” Derik murmured and placed a palm flat on my back, right in between my shoulder blades. The incredible sensations of the clan bond combined with the heat of his hand slowly started to saturate into my tense muscles. He didn’t move, giving me time to relax into this moment and after taking a deep breath, I felt myself melting into the table below me.
“Good, Wonder Girl,” Derik said in that same low sensual voice. “I am going to start now. I need you to tell me if you get even the slightest uncomfortable. Everyone finds different things relaxing and I can only know what works for you if you communicate with me. Let me know if you want more or less pressure. Let me know if you want me to stay somewhere or if you would rather me move on. I swear that you won’t offend me if you promise to tell me the truth.”
I turned my head out of the cradle and looked back to see Derik standing over me. I looked into his vibrant green eyes that were uncovered by any contacts and reached my hand out and placed it on this thigh right above his knee. It felt like we were talking about more than just a massage here. It felt like we were talking about a future. A complicated and complex future that I was allowing myself to really start yearning for. A future that most definitely had Derik Risberg in it.
“I promise,” I vowed and meant it.