Authors: Veronica Del Rosa
A few hours later, Lori sunk down onto her bed, grateful to be home. Or at least, her temporary bed and temporary home. She flung her arms above her head and sprawled out. Most of the bruises had faded to a sickly yellowish-green, and only a few twinges of pain reminded her of her stupidity. A testament to her rapid healing.
She had expected the Human Coterie leader, Paige, to rip her a new one. Who in their right minds antagonized a bunch of pissed off humans? And yet, Paige smiled at her sweetly, like a kind grandmother and said, “Don’t worry about it, dear. I’ll look into this matter.”
Eyelids squeezed tight together, she tried to swat away the one pesky word that tormented her. It floated around her head, gaining momentum and overshadowing every thought.
Tariq had claimed her as his lifemate. Was it true or simply a way to extend protection to her? She gained status as his mate, elevated beyond a mere submissive. A mild huff of irritation from her broke the silence in her room. Like she cared what those narrow-minded humans thought. And while it galled her to do so, she would now steer clear of their “territory” and learn the other areas to avoid.
A soft knock at her door pulled her attention outwards. The familiar sound told her who stood on the other side. A piece of wood separated her from the man she both anticipated and dreaded seeing again.
She pressed the correct button on intercom next to her bed. Soundproof meant even someone standing at the door couldn’t hear her yelling. With a calm she didn’t feel, she spoke into the handy bit of technology, “Come in. I’m decent.”
The door swung open, and a strangled laugh came from Tariq.
Without moving, she asked, “What’s so funny?”
The door closed behind him with a gentle thud, isolating them from the rest of the house. Now their conversations would be private, no nosy werewolves to overhear them.
“I’m wishing right now you weren’t decent. You’re laid out like a buffet, and I’m hungry.” Her body tingled at his words, and images of him between her legs swept over her. The fragrance of arousal, his and hers, permeated the room.
Sitting up, debating her next move, she drank in the sight of Tariq leaning against the bedroom door. Beige khakis molded to his thighs, and a thin, white t-shirt showcased his lean, muscular chest.
“Damn it, darling, stop looking at me like that, or I’ll forget all my good intentions.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You started it with talk about buffets.” When he raised his own eyebrow in response, she sighed, “Fine, I’ll behave.”
“We need to talk.”
Lori groaned and dropped herself backwards again, welcoming the darkness when she threw her arm over her eyes. “Talking. Never a good sign. What do you want to talk about?”
No sound betrayed his movement, and yet when the bed dipped with his weight, she wasn’t surprised. Every nerve ending was attuned to him. She could also picture the frown on his face while he studied her.
His voice grave, he said, “You’ve been avoiding me since we got back. I’d like to know why.”
Her first instinct was to deny his statement.
Don’t let him in. Don’t admit pain.
That was the old her, however, the one who didn’t need anyone. The new her recognized the value of leaning on other people and trusting them.
“I’m confused. You tailed me. It’s the only way you could’ve arrived so quickly. Did you think I’d cause problems?” Hurt crept into her voice even though she tried to hide it.
“No, of course not. But you’re still new to your emotions. And if you got stuck shifting, I didn’t want you by yourself.” His hand rested on her calf, stroking her through the material. “Why didn’t you defend yourself?”
Lori lowered her arm, resting it on the bed with her fingers inches from his thigh. “I didn’t want to cause problems for the pack. If I had hurt someone, they would’ve gone straight to the media.”
Tariq smiled, soft and understanding, “I should’ve known. Of course you would’ve thought of the consequences. You’re good for the pack.”
A loud rap, booming and demanding immediate attention, startled them both. Lori reached over to the intercom. “Come in.”
Derek’s massive body filled the entrance, a scowl etching his face. Shit, she
caused problems for the pack, hadn’t she? Was he here to kick her out?
“Good, you’re both here.” His voice, although quiet, filled the room. “We have matters to discuss concerning Lori.”
Tariq’s fingers tightened on her calf, his grip almost painful. Derek stepped into the room and closed the door. The gentle thud was as loud as a nail being slammed into her coffin lid. She was now trapped with this behemoth with no escape.
“What…” she trailed off, cleared her throat and began again, “what matters would that be?”
Dark brown eyes studied her, stripping her soul naked and judging her. Did he find her lacking? Lori straightened her shoulders. Made no difference how Derek felt about her, she had nothing to apologize for, no matter what her possible trespasses were.
A corner of Derek’s lips twitched, a softening to his harsh countenance. She glanced at Tariq who shrugged.
“You have no pack, no one to anchor you after your transition.” His words hit her hard, more painful than she thought possible.
Her existence spread out before her, lonely and always on the outside. The craving to belong, to be a part of something greater than herself, tugged at her, and her wolf half wanted to howl in misery. She was no longer content to stand alone. She wanted the closeness and the sanctuary this pack had, secure in the knowledge that someone cared about them.
“Yes, I know,” she choked out, wondering how long she had until he told her to leave.
“Which is why I’m offering you a position within my pack. It doesn’t happen often. In fact, Sylvia was the last transfer I accepted, and that was over thirty years ago. If you do accept, you will be a submissive until you can prove yourself. Or stay as a submissive. There’s nothing wrong with that title. If you don’t want to stay, I can help you find another pack to join.”
“But, what about what happened today? I screwed up.”
Derek waved her concern away. “You didn’t know. And from what I’ve heard, you handled it without creating a bigger incident. Smart women, I like to keep them in my pack, even if they occasionally do something stupid.” Pain flashed across his face before he schooled his features. “You don’t need to answer immediately, but I will need a decision before the week is over.”
He left the room without a backward glance, placing this important choice in her hands.
“Any idea what you’ll tell him?” Tariq’s face was carefully blank, not a hint of emotion to indicate which answer he wanted.
Watching him closely, she instead asked, “Lifemates?”
His eyes slid sideways, avoiding hers. The silence stretched between them, but she refused to break it. With a near inaudible sigh, he muttered, “Hoped you’d forget that.”
The denial was a sucker punch to the gut. Scrambling into a sitting position, she drew her legs inwards, away from his hand. “You lied? Or you don’t want to be my lifemate?”
“No!” His gaze flew to hers. “No, that’s not what I meant. You’re… we’re… damn it!” Surging to his feet, he swung away from her, pacing the bedroom. “You don’t need this right now, on top of everything else. You recently found out about your heritage and had your whole world changed. Control of your other half should be your priority right now, not worries about a lifemate. I’ll ask Derek to assign someone else to you, maybe Zmitro.”
Her first thought was to lash out, and punish him for hurting her. She reigned in that desire, and dug deeper for the meaning behind his words. One of the things she’d learned about werewolves was their possessiveness, their innate desire to hold on to what was theirs. He wasn’t pushing her away, merely trying to do the right thing by her.
Like that’s what she wanted.
Lips twitching, she decided to needle him, see how far he’d let this go. “Is that what you want? Someone else helping me through the Change? Seeing me naked? I’ll lean on them instead, spend my time with Zmitro or perhaps one of the twins.”
Right on cue, he whirled back to her and snarled. Jealousy consumed him, his eyes glowing amber. His usual smooth voice rough with emotion, he ground out, “No, damn it! That’s not what I want.”
He pounced on the bed and crawled toward her until their foreheads touched. She whispered, “Then what do you want?”
“You. Only you,” Tariq hoarsely muttered. “You’re my lifemate, and I’ll kill anyone who touches you. I’ve waited my whole life for you. I won’t give you up. But I can’t force you to accept me. And I don’t want to push you.”
Her smile peeked out, the joy too hard to contain. “I’m not a child, Tariq, nor an innocent virgin. I know my own mind and what I want.” She stroked his face, the soft hairs of his beard tickling her skin. “But thank you. Thank you for giving me the choice, for not pushing me. How about we take this slow? Is there anything that states we have to complete the bond immediately?”
Lori wanted more. She wanted Tariq and everything that came with him, good or bad.
A slow smile lit up his face. His eyes remained amber, although for different reasons. The scent of his arousal wrapped around her. “No, we can take this slow. Derek and Sylvia waited decades before they completed their bond.”
Eyes flicked down to his lips then back up again, she said, “Let’s not wait
long. We’ll pretend we’re human and have an engagement period. Sounds good?”
“Whatever you want. We can date and meet friends. As long as you’re mine in the end.”
Excitement unfurled in her stomach. “And we can still have sex, right?”
“Oh darling, you have no idea,” Tariq whispered before he captured her lips.