“Here.” Judd pushed up a branch so she could pass underneath. Which was why she was in front when they entered the clearing, where one of the injured boys lay propped up against a tree, cradling his arm. The other sat cross-legged, clutching at his ribs. Brace was tall and lanky, though Joshua had put on a bit of muscle over the past couple of months. Right now, however, both looked like shamed six-year-olds.
The reason, Lara guessed as her heart thudded hard against her ribs, was the man standing with his arms folded, looking down at the two miscreants. “Walker.” She’d scented the dark water and snow-dusted fir of his scent as she and Judd neared but had put it down to the fact that he was often in this area with the younger teens—having been put in charge of the ten-to-thirteen-year-olds. A tough age for wolves, but Walker handled them without so much as raising his voice.
She could understand why—quiet, intense Walker Lauren had a presence akin to that of any dominant wolf. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” Her voice came out a little husky to her own ears, but no one else seemed to notice.
Walker’s pale green eyes held hers for a long, tense second. “I was passing by when I glimpsed these two.” His gaze shifted over her shoulder. “I’ll carry it back.”
“We need to speak—bring the kids for dinner.” Judd melted away into the forest so fast, Lara didn’t even manage to turn around in time.
“Lara, it hurts.” It was an almost apologetic voice.
Wrenching away the suffocating web of want and anger and hurt that had wrapped around her, she went to her knees. “Let me see, sweetheart,” she said, checking first Brace, then Joshua. “Hold still for a second.” Using the pressure injector, she gave them each a shot of painkiller.
She was vividly conscious of Walker hunkering down beside her, his body big, the scent of him as cool and reserved as the man himself. As she worked, he spoke to Joshua and Brace. Whatever they’d done to get into trouble, the boys’ wolves relaxed at once under his attention. Lara only wished her own wolf wasn’t so hypersensitive to his presence, until its fur rubbed up against the inside of her skin—but sensitivity aside, the wolf maintained a wary distance. Both parts of her had learned their lesson when it came to Walker Lauren.
“There,” she said a while later as both boys checked out Brace’s high-tech cast, made of a transparent plascrete. “Any pain or discomfort, you come to me straight away, you understand?”
“Thanks, Lara.” A brilliant smile from Joshua followed by a kiss from each teenager—one on either cheek—before they got up and raced off, as if they hadn’t been fighting tears not long before.
Shaking her head even as her wolf did the same in affectionate amusement, Lara packed up her gear and watched Walker pick up the bag without effort. It took several attempts to get anything out through a throat gone dry as dust, but she was determined not to allow him to unsettle her. “Thanks.”
A silent nod.
As they walked back, Lara’s mind rebelled against her own resolution, drowning her in thoughts of that kiss the night Riaz returned to the den. The senior members of the pack had thrown the lieutenant an impromptu welcome-home party. The bubbles had been flowing, and Lara, who didn’t usually drink, had had a little too much champagne. It had given her the courage not only to argue with the tall Psy male who’d fascinated her since he first entered the den, but to drag him into a dark corner, go on tiptoe, and find his mouth with her own.
He’d kissed her back, slow and deep and with that powerful body held in fierce check, his hands curving around her ribs as he pulled her into the V of his thighs. The strong muscles in his neck had flexed under her fingers when he angled his head to deepen the kiss, the slight abrasiveness of his unshaven jaw rubbing a rough caress over her skin.
Big as he was, she’d felt surrounded by him, overwhelmed in the most sensual of ways, his shoulders blocking out the world as he backed her to the wall. She might’ve been buzzed, but she’d never forget a single instant of that experience. Woman and wolf, every part of her had been stunned at her success . . . for the five short seconds it lasted.
Then Walker had lifted his head and nudged her back to the party. She’d thought he was acting the gentleman since she was a tad tipsy, but he would surely do what all dominants did when they wanted a woman, seek her out again when she was sober. He hadn’t called her the next morning, which hadn’t left her in the best of moods. But he had called her later that same afternoon.
They’d gone for a walk, her heart in her throat the entire time. She’d thought it was a beginning. Until Walker had stopped on the edge of a cliff that fell into a valley with dramatic suddenness, his dark blond hair pushed back by the breeze, and said, “What happened last night was a mistake, Lara.” His tone had been gentle, and that had made it all the more terrible. “I apologize.”
Ice crawled through her veins, but not wanting to make a mistake, she’d asked, “Because I had too much champagne?”
The answer had been absolute, the rejection crystal clear. “No.”
She thought she might’ve made some smiling remark before excusing herself to walk back to the den alone, but all she could remember was the crushing black of her emotions. God, this man, he’d hurt her. However, if it had been a simple case of unrequited attraction, she’d have forgiven him—as she knew too well, you couldn’t control who you fell for.
No, what had hurt and angered her was that it hadn’t all been in her head. She knew when a man wanted her, and Walker had wanted her . . . enough to kiss, apparently, but not to keep. If that was the case, he was plenty big and strong enough to have stopped her kiss before it ever touched his lips. He hadn’t. He’d held her as if she mattered before breaking her heart. And that, she couldn’t, wouldn’t forgive.