"I'm sorry." It came out as a high-pitched sob. Freya looked at me oddly.
One week. A whole week of her hardly saying anything. Just "thanks", "okay" and more vague things.
"About Sunday.," I said. "What happened with Dustin. I-I know it was...wrong."
She sighed. "You did nothing "wrong". He's your mate...too."
I hated the hesitation on "too".
"He's our mate, Freya," I affirmed, stressing the "our".
"So you're not mad? At all?"
She looked at me with furious eyes. "Of course not! Why would you think that?"
I laughed nervously. Angry Freya is scary. "You've been sort of quiet lately. I felt guilty. I didn't know what to say. I really am sorry."
"No," she sighed. "Stop apologizing. I'm not angry with you. I'm not angry, period. I just... I'm scared, Riley."
I turned in the car seat to face her. "Why?"
"Dustin. He....he loves you and all he sees when he looks at me is that girl you call your truemate."
"Okay. First of all, Dustin doesn't "love"--" I made air-quotes with my fingers, "--me. At least not really. Not the way I want him to. I'm his best friend.
"And two, I don't just "call" you my true mate. You are my truemate. I know I've said……things. I didn't mean them. You're my true mate. It's an endgame sort of thing, and that's where we're headed, Freya. Endgame!"
"He hates me," she whispered. She started to sob. I pulled her over the car-console and into my arms.
"He said it, Riley. That he can't like me because I get to keep you. He-he- he," she stammered. "Oh, Riley! I don't know what to do."
Her sobs wrecked my soul. My heart did a lot more than just break.
A cold rage settled low in the pit of my stomach. My coyote demanded retribution.
And so that evening, before opening when there was no one but me and Freya in Feral, and Dustin Webb walked in, I did not blink.
I did not hesitate.
I strolled right up to him and punched him square in the jaw.
He flew backwards, landing on his sorry ass.
"Reject me for ten years. Ten fucking years, Dustin! But that girl right there--" I pointed at a gasping Freya standing behind the bar, "--you don't get to pull that shit on her. Because I swear it to you, Dustin, and I mean it, I'll make you pay. I'll smash your stupid face in."
Dustin flinched at my words; I never swore. His lip was split and bleeding down his chin.
Coyote-shifters were most definitely stronger than Wolf-shifters. I had proved it, but that discovery paled in comparison to the thrill of defending my mate.
"Leave," I barked.
He raised his hands. "Riles, please."
This time I was the one who flinched. I hated that he used my nickname when I was so pissed at him.
"I didn't know," he mumbled quietly. "You really think I would reject you."
"You did," I said simply.
I lifted one shoulder in a tiny shrug.
"Goodness, Riley. Of course not!"
I took a step back.
"All these years you were my best friend. My other half. My....my brother." His green eyes were shiny with tears.
Another step back.
"Then Freya shows up and I start to feel these.... these things. For you."
He flicked his eyes to her. "For her too. Maybe not as much as you, but still there and just as real."
"Everest says because I have two mates, my wolf waited until he found them both before he acknowledged the mate bonds."
"I never meant...the palm root. I never meant for that to happen." He looked to Freya again. "To any of you."
I staggered. "What?" I asked, whirling around to face Freya.
"The mate fevers. I caused them and I'm sorry," Dustin said.
I ignored him.
"How long?" I asked Freya.
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
"How long!" I screamed.
The back door opened. Jessica walked in.
"Get out!" I yelled.
She looked from me, to Freya, to a bloodied Dustin. "I'll be outside," she mumbled.
I looked at Dustin. "Tell me about the fevers, damnit!"
I was fuming.
I was raging.
Mate fevers. And I had had no effing cluel.
I flashed back to my own. They had been awful. Unbearably brutal. My skin had crawled with a sweltering heat.
When Dustin was with Diana.
When Diana was with Dustin.
It all came spinning back.
How everything tasted like cardboard.
How I wanted nothing more than to sleep for days. For years.
One more hour of sleep and maybe I would not wake up.
Dustin would force me to eat. Slaving over food in the kitchen for hours.
When all I wanted; all I needed,
I swept the glasses off the bar top and they crashed with the sickening crunch only glass could make.
Tears ran freely down my cheeks and I fell onto my knees.
What kind of mate was I that had no idea when my mate--my true mate-- was hurting.
Freya hurried around the counter, and knelt before me. She did not hesitate as she took me into her arms.
A second passed.
Then two, and then I felt nothing.
"How do you do that?" I asked, my voice chocked up and rough from my crying.
"Make me feel better. It's like you drain away the bad."
She smiled and shrugged. "I'm your truemate. It comes with the territory." Our mate bond...
I pulled away, ignoring the hurt on her face.
"Then why don't you let me do the same for you. I can take your pain too. Why suffer through the mate fevers alone?'
Her smile faded. "The bad doesn't go away, Riley. I take it in. I feel it. It becomes my own."
"I'm not weak, Freya. If you want to take mine, then I need to take yours. I'm your mate as much as you're mine. No shutting me out. I forbid it."
She laughed softly. "Okay," she whispered. "I won't shut you out anymore."
Freya helped me to my feet and we faced Dustin.
He stayed sprawled out on the floor watching us cautiously.
Freya squeezed my hand.
Apologize, her eyes said. Forgive him.
"I'm sorry I hit you. But I meant what I said."
He nodded. "I know." He got up and dusted himself off.
My floors were not dirty! "I run a clean shop, Mr. Webb."
He had the grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry," he mumbled. "For everything."
Freya stayed silent and I followed suit.
"I really want to talk to the both of you. I don't understand any of this. I just found out that I've been hurting you, the both of you, this entire time. I had no idea. I swear it," he said fiercely. "Please just give me a chance to explain myself."
"We're your mates, Dustin." I needed him to know I wanted nothing other than complete acceptance from him.
"Yes. My truemates. I know that now."
I stared at him for a while. Just looking. Taking in his heavy breaths, his shaking hands-- the most emotion I had ever seen Dustin Webb show.
"Okay," I finally said.
I told Jessie that she was in charge for the night.
The rest of us-- me, Freya and Dusin-- went back to Webb Manor