“Ellie, baby wake up.” I groggily open my eyes as Nik showers me with soft kisses. The images from last night bombard my mind and I begin to panic. Robert is dead.
“Robert...” I whisper. Nik swallows and his eyes drop to the floor.
“He’s gone.” Is all he says.
“It’s all my fault... Nik I can’t let you marry me. I can’t keep hurting your people.” The death threatens to consume me.
“Baby, nobody blames you. It’s not your fault. It’s going to be okay.” He scoops me up and strokes my hair.
“Rylin! Where’s Rylin?” I panic again. If he’s gone I’ll never recover. My gentle little pup.
“He’s okay, he’s home recovering. Two fatal wounds are not easy to heal from. It takes time but he’s going to be okay.”
“The council needs to meet with us today. They have to determine what’s next.” He looks so broken and I feel a wave of sadness wash over me. I realize it’s not mine but his.
“Maybe Robert was right, maybe I’m better off dead.”
Nik’s growl startles me and I jump. I didn’t realize I said that out loud.
“No! Listen to me. I lost you once and if I lose you again I won’t survive it.”
I want to tell him that maybe I can’t survive living with the guilt of my fathers past. With my own mistakes. Instead I walk to the bathroom and lock myself in. I let the hot water numb my skin and my mind. As I sit there I stare at my knees. The jagged scars remind me of wolves and death and I find myself nauseous again.
I don’t know how long I have been in here when Nik gently taps the door.
“We will be late if we don’t leave soon.” Is all he says.
I wait until his footsteps fade to step out of the shower. All I can think about is my father, Robert and the lone wolf I killed. They all just wanted to bring back their mates. They all were mad with heartbreak. I’m forced to think about the fact that their ghosts will forever haunt me.
I braid my wet hair and put on a pair of jeans and maroon sweater. I slip on my boots and don’t bother with make up. It couldn’t erase my swollen lids and puffy face anyway.
Nik leads me to a cabin and I hear him before I see him.
“Momma bear is here!” Rylin shouts from the couch. He is still pale and his voice is weaker than usual. I rush over to him and he grabs my hand.
“Why did you defend me? You shouldn’t have. Look where it got you.” Tears threaten to spill over.
“It’s our job to protect one of ours.” Koda says as he sits in a chair next to us.
His eyes hold a mix of grief and forgiveness which only makes me feel worse. Even though I didn’t kill Robert I still feel responsible for his death.
“I feel your turmoil, Elle. Don’t think for a second I blame you. My father was grieving over his mate and it killed him, not you. Or your father for that matter. Fate dealt him a tragic hand and we can’t control that.”
Koda sounds so wise and my heart breaks a little more at his quickness to see me as one of his own people. Rhiannon wraps her arms around him and smiles sadly at me. Her eyes hold pain too.
“He’s right. Since we became shifters we’ve all agreed to put the past behind us and stop blaming your family. This doesn’t change a thing. You’re our family too and it’s not your fault that the mate bond is so powerful. You didn’t ask for this life.”
“Cheer up momma bear. It’s going to be alright.” Rylin squeezes my hand and the tears slip out.
“Ellie, the elders are calling to us. They want to have a meeting and they want you there.” Nik comes to me and scoops me up.
“We will talk about you being too touchy with my mate later Rylin.” Nik huffs. Rylin sinks into the couch.
“Get some rest. I’ll bring you some food later.”
I promise him and he smiles that boyish smile. I will myself not to cry anymore. I have to at least pretend I’m not falling completely apart. I think about Rylin and how I would hope I could have a son as gentle and sweet. I think of how much Nik deserves a strong woman with beautiful children. How I’ve done nothing but cause him problems since I’ve come home.
I know what I need to do. Even though I know it’ll kill me just like it killed Robert and soon will kill my father. I have to let him go for his sake. He’s strong enough to survive it. He will have a chance at happiness and a full life that isn’t so messy. I will let him have a good life. Even if it means I can’t be in it.
My heart breaks at the finality of my decision. I know Nik feels it because his grip tightens and he looks into my eyes.
“It’s going to be okay Ellie. We will get back to that place of happiness we found as kids. I promise I will not let them hurt you anymore. We have to let Robert go. Don’t feel guilty for something out of your control.”
He smiles sadly at me and kisses me before we begin our journey to the council meeting. I think of those days as kids where he smiled so bright. So carefree and wild.
That’s the Nik I will choose to remember, not the sad, broken Nik I’ve created. When this meeting is over I will leave this place behind. This time no one will have to drag me away, this time I’ll go willingly because I know too many lives depend on it.