LARA FELT THE back of her neck prickle with awareness as the door shut with a quiet snick. Conscious her tiredness could undermine her resolve where Walker was concerned, she bought time by shrugging off the sweatshirt she’d pulled on over a faded pair of jeans after a two-minute shower to wash off the blood. Her wolf had been unhappy to leave the injured for even that long, but the doctor in her knew the value of cleanliness in a medical surrounding.
“Look,” she said at last. “I know we’re friends”—it physically hurt to say that in spite of the fact that she’d made the decision to accept the friendship, continue on with her life in every other way—“but I really would prefer to be alone.” A painful lie. She was a healer, a wolf. She loved being around her pack. But more, she needed to be around her man. Unfortunately, the man both woman and wolf had chosen was unable to give her what she needed—Silence and a stranger named Yelene had ruined the finest man Lara had ever known . . . and it appeared the damage was irreversible.
Sinking down on the sofa with that truth weighing down her already heavy heart, she bent to unlace her boots.
Dark blond hair threaded with the barest glimmer of silver filled her vision as Walker knelt to do the task. “Don’t,” she whispered, her defenses shattered by the events of the night, until she could no longer hide the ache in her soul, the empty space where he should’ve been.
He ignored her to undo the laces and remove her boots with quick, steady hands before tugging off her socks. She gave up trying to stop him, gave up trying to fight the need tearing her apart, and simply indulged in the sight of those strong shoulders below her, the fabric stretched taut over solid muscle.
A teacher, that’s what everyone said he’d been in the PsyNet. But Lara had always wondered if there was more to it—there was something about Walker that spoke of shadows, of hidden truths. Things she knew he’d never share. Not Walker.
“Sleep.” A single deep word as he rose and picked up the blanket from where it had fallen off the couch.
Surrendering both to exhaustion and to his indomitable will, she laid down her head and closed her eyes. She felt the blanket being unfurled over her, felt his fingers push rebellious curls off her face with a tenderness that made her throat lock, but she didn’t open her eyes. For this single, shimmering moment, she’d indulge in a fantasy in which Walker wasn’t broken. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
ONCE in the break room, Hawke grabbed a seat at the small table and pulled Sienna into his lap. She turned stiff. “What are you doing? Anyone could walk in.”
His wolf peeled back its lips, a low growl rumbling in his chest. “Do you think I’m planning to hide this, hide us?”
“No.” Yet the edgy distance remained.
Neither part of him liked it. “You’ve seen me holding packmates.”
“Never me.” The absolute lack of emotion in that simple statement killed him.
“No,” he agreed, stroking his hand over the dark beauty of the hair. “Let me hold you tonight.”
It took time for her to soften, to curve her hand over his shoulder, settle her head against him. And he knew—because he knew her—that that would be all she’d give him unless he pushed. Sienna was used not only to keeping secrets, but to fighting her battles alone. No more.
One arm around her shoulders, the hand of the other on the sleek muscle of her thigh, he said, “Eli’s injuries got to you.” He’d been focused on Simran, but his wolf had sensed Sienna arrive, had him glancing up to see her eyes turn to midnight when they landed on the injured soldier.
There were no words from her, not for a long time. When they did come, they were brittle shards. “I could do that. I have done that . . . and worse.” Sienna said, not knowing why she was admitting to the true horror of her nature. “No one knows.”
Hawke’s hand stilled on her thigh for a fraction of an instant before he began to pet her again with those small, slow movements. “Talk to me.”
She’d kept the secret for so long, not wanting anyone to see her as a monster, but tonight, she knew that to be a false hope. She was a monster. That could not be changed. “When I was five years old,” she said, her mind acrid with memory—the lash of cold fire, the agonizing sound of a high pitched scream, the nauseating scent of burned flesh and melted plas as the datapad fused into the soft flesh of a hand that had only ever touched her in gentleness, “I set my mother on fire.”
“Ah, baby.” The tenderness in his voice almost broke her.
“That’s how it happens with the lucky ones,” she said, the piercing echo of her mother’s screams something she would never forget. “The unlucky ones immolate themselves the first time the X-marker kicks in.” Unlike with the majority of other designations, it was near impossible to identify an X while the ability lay dormant.
“I know your mother survived.”
“Yes, she was a powerful telepath.” Sienna’s shields had been basic at that stage, with her mother providing the necessary psychic protections. As a result, Kristine had had full access to her mind. “After the first shock, she did the only thing she could and knocked me unconscious.” The medics had been able to repair all but the damage done by the datapad. Kristine had carried a fused patch of skin and plas on her palm until the day she died—and never once had she blamed Sienna for it.
Hawke settled her deeper against him, the hand that had been on her thigh moving up to cup her face. The guilt inside of her made her want to avoid his gaze, duck her head, but she’d never before done that with him, recognizing instinctively that to bow down in such a way was to signal something to his wolf that she did not want. “That was when Ming came,” she said, meeting those wolf-blue eyes though shame curdled her stomach. “He wanted to cut me off from my family at once, except that my mother had been unconsciously subduing my urges since birth.”