THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 22 - LUNA

As we emerged into the shadows of Knox’s bedroom, the sun setting and light fading beyond the glass, I broke from his hold and fell to my knees, vomiting on the floor. I heaved again and again, and soft hands pulled my hair back from my face. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, his voice breaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He stroked my back as I emptied the already-meager contents of my stomach, the yellow bile burning my throat and stinging my tearing eyes.

When my purging turned to coughing and hacking, Knox waved and hand and vanished my mess from his floor. I was shaking, my body flooded with pins and needles pricking at my skin, and any form of coherent thought escaped me. Gasping down breaths, still hunched on my hands and knees, he placed a cool glass of water on the ground next to me. “Drink this,” he gently instructed, a hand smoothing my hair. When my limbs finally ceased trembling, I pushed to my knees and reached for the water. Several drops slipped from my lips as I drank, but the small stain they left felt good against my feverish chest.

My mind returned slowly, piecing back together and calming as my breathing regulated. Knox had a hand on my shoulder, and he helped me to my feet to shuffle towards a bed I hadn’t seen. The linens were all black, I noticed, but my eyes were trained on Knox as he lifted the covers and waited for me to settle against the pillows. His expression was pained, filled with what could only be regret, and the sight of it made my empty stomach twist.

The sheets were cool against my flushed skin, and I let out a sign of relief as my head rested against the smooth pillow. Knox hovered, hands raised at his sides as if he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Eventually, he kneeled, his tormented eyes level with mine from where I laid on the bed. “I can’t begin to explain how sorry I am,” he choked, stroking my hair back from my face with trembling fingers to reveal the bite on my neck. With a shake of his head, he murmured, “You should try to sleep…” Knox looked like he wanted to say more, but instead he stood, disappearing from my eyeline somewhere else in his room.

Sleep sounded inevitable, with my eyelids drooping of their own accord. A sense of peace settled over me, smelling of grapes and tilled earth and cinnamon.

When I next woke, it was into darkness, the room barely illuminated by the bright stars through the glass. I felt disoriented, unsure what time it was or where I had ended up. The last thing I could recall was the spray of blood against my skin as Draven slit his guard’s throat, then nothing. My head was pounding, hands tingling, and my mouth felt dryer than ever.

A slight movement drew my eye to the corner of the room, where Knox sat in a dark armchair against the wall of glass, one booted foot propped against his knee. In one hand, he loosely held a glass, almost drained of its contents, and his head leaned against the hand he had resting on the chair’s leather arm. He seemed lost in thought, his dark eyes far away, staring at the amber liquid that remained without actually seeing. I wasn’t sure if he was aware that I was conscious, so I purposely shifted where I laid and let out a small, throaty cough.

His gaze whipped to me, brow furrowed as I managed to pull myself into a seated position. My joints ached, my limbs felt heavy, and a sense of dread pooled in my gut. “You’re awake,” he said, his voice low and strained with sleep. Sitting up straight, he set his glass to the side and folded his hands carefully in his lap, his face cold and masked. “How do you feel?” The question felt stiff, followed by the slight tapping of his thumb against his clasped fingers.

My throat felt dry, and I coughed again, only to find a glass of water in my hand. As I sipped and let the cool liquid calm my flaming throat, I noticed Knox wouldn’t meet my eyeline. He looked everywhere except directly at me…eyes drifting to his hands, the room around us, the space above my head. Swallowing down the last of the water, I tried to find my voice, tried to find an answer to his concern for my well-being. How was I feeling? Any honest answer would surely only deepen the crease between his brows, but any dishonest answer would only deepen the valley I now felt between us.

My whole body felt like it was vibrating, and the pounding headache in my temples was relentless despite the dim room. But mostly, I felt…him. All around me, his magic in my veins, the scent and aura of him stronger than ever before. I knew immediately that it was because he had Claimed me, but he wasn’t likely to answer any questions about that…situation…if I asked directly. I let out a small sigh, completely exhausted.

How long ago had I woken up in his arms, secure in his warmth? How many days had even passed since I found myself across from him at the diner? My brain felt sluggish, a step behind where I needed to be to have another circular conversation full of contradictions with this man. If the tapping of his thumb was any indication of his mood, it would require all my mental faculties to address any of the tension thrumming in the air…thumping in time with my heartbeat.

I decided to try open-ended, hoping he would be more willing to supplement information in his current state. “What happened?” With a hand, I pushed my wild hair back from my face, allowing the movement to reveal the bite on my neck. Knox cringed, but quickly schooled his expression into one of controlled calm.

“The use of so much magic in a short time…it, well, it can have side effects.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at him. He was a master in non-answers, so I shifted my approach, fighting against annoyance.

“Knox. You Claimed me. I think we’re beyond the runaround responses at this point.” Arms crossed in front of my chest, I tried to level him with the most no-nonsense look I could manage. He sighed, the mask falling with his shoulders.

“I know. I’m sorry, I just…” he ran a hand through his already-tousled hair, a frown firmly in his lips. Taking a deep breath, he briefly closed his eyes and leaned back in his armchair. Chin tilted towards the ceiling, he tried again. “Things were…escalating. The Alpha, he was threatening you, and I just…” his pained voice trailed off and he straightened suddenly, as if remembering himself.

The next time he spoke, he was solid in his resolve, mask back in place. “I made the decision to Claim you without speaking to you first, and for that I apologize. It was my intention to protect you against harm from him in all ways, nothing more. Please accept my sincerest regrets.” His voice was calm, almost clinical, as if he had rehearsed that statement beforehand.

I decided I hated him like this, hated how stiff he was being about the something between us. There was the matter of the Haze, after all, the matter of the literal pull between us I wasn’t sure we could deny, no matter how much he clearly wanted to. His mouth was a tight line, and his eyes looked tired. I wondered if he was holding back his magic, at least what he could manage with so much unspoken in the air. I felt a pang in my gut for the Knox I’d woken up to only days before, mussed from sleep and warm where my body was pressed against him. I grieved what might have been if Janus hadn’t barged in on us, if Draven hadn’t come after me…if the events of his ravings hadn’t accumulated in a forced shift in our relationship.

What could have been, if we’d had the rest of the Run together… alone? There had been so little time for me to get to know Knox, but I couldn’t deny my draw to him. When it was just the two of us, he was so much lighter, more relaxed, teasing in his words and actions. And now…there was so much actual space between us, I didn’t think I could reach him even if I tried. I couldn’t feel that familiar brush against my mind, though his magic was all around us in the dark, and the loss of it left me cold. A shiver rolled down my spine.

“He killed his guard,” I choked out lamely, hoping to steer us away from the obvious discomfort of his Claim. It was humiliating, sitting in his bed like this, knowing he would rather have me anywhere else. Knox nodded slightly, the movement tight.

“He killed both of them.” I shuddered. “Almost Bennet, too, before he was contained. They’ve all been escorted from my Territory with lifetime bans.” His thumb tapped, his brow furrowed. “The absence of the middle brother didn’t aid in things, as apparently he has been the peacekeeper of the three...” His expression turned thoughtful, and he stared out the glass at something I couldn’t see. “They didn’t specify why he was not in attendance, though it concerns me that he was absent…” he waved a hand, clearing away his thoughts. “Regardless, he is banned as well. They cannot come after you here.”

My stomach was in knots, nausea barely abated by Knox’s assurances. How had I ended up in this position? I was tied to an Alpha who clearly did not want me, his admitted actions apparently only out of a sense of obligation towards my protection…despite what his previous attentions might have suggested. I had attempted to deter Draven in his quest to reclaim me, but he had made it very blatant that he had no issue hunting me down rather than letting me go. Now I had no home, no place safe to hide away from the stinging rejection that threatened to swallow me whole, not even a private corner to go cry in and feel sorry for myself.

“So now what?” I mumbled, face flushing. My arrival had brought so much chaos to his Pack, and now he could barely look at me despite the pulsing energy between us. Knox waved a hand, refilling his glass with amber liquid that he quickly drained.

“I have arranged for you to stay with Jessamy, until…for a while. She’ll begin your introduction to magic, and will be looking into the containment wards she detected around you. Mira has already prepared a bag of things for you, and Janus will be here in the morning to drive you.” His glass refilled, and he emptied it again, a slight tremor to his fingers as he lifted the glass from his lips. “You’ll begin training at the Pack house once you’re fully…recovered.” He couldn’t hide his grimace, his distaste at the visible bite. “Until then, you should rest. You’re welcome to - I’ll leave you to sleep here.” He stood suddenly, not completely steady on his feet, and moved as quickly as he could manage toward the open doors that led into the hall, keeping a wide berth as he passed around the bed.

I had to shift against the mattress to follow him, and he turned sharply back to me when he reached the threshold. “While you are here, it is your right to choose your own accommodations, if you wish, though your stay with Jessamy can be as long as you prefer.” He hesitated, thumb tapping against the side of his leg. “When you do choose, I hope -“ he stopped then, jaw clenching. His hand gripped against the door jamb, as if he needed to steady himself against the rapidly-rising walls behind his eyes. Then he simply disappeared, all of the things he might have said vanishing with him into the shadows.

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