“Yeah, likely.” Hawke patted the side of the wolf whose head he’d been scratching, and it reluctantly made room for another. “Dalton might know more about this than either one of us,” the alpha said, naming the pack’s Librarian, “but there is something else I can tell you.”
“The choice isn’t yours—it’s always the woman who accepts or rejects the bond.”
“Hell it isn’t.” Riaz’s claws sliced out of his skin. “The female might accept the bond, but I damn well bet you the male’s got to be willing. This one isn’t.” Once, he would’ve sold his soul to be Lisette’s, but something fundamental had changed in him, his soul reborn from a crucible of shattering pain. He’d survived, come out of it scarred, altered, stronger, a man who loved a soldier and had no desire to turn back the clock.
“It’s Adria’s face I see when I think of home.” Adria’s eyes of blue-violet that looked back at him from the faces of the children he’d started to imagine since that night in the moonlit meadow where she had become his. “Adria who holds my secrets.”
“You’d walk away from the woman meant to be your mate?”
“Yes.” Maybe it wasn’t a choice any other wolf would ever make—hell, the idea might even horrify—but no other wolf had lived the life that had led up to this moment. “I’ve found the woman who’s meant to be mine.” The woman who had his wolf’s wild devotion.
“Are you sure?” his alpha asked, though he’d just given his answer.
Riaz met the other man’s gaze, his anger so deep he knew his eyes were those of the predator that lived within him.
But Hawke didn’t back down. “You’re talking about Adria’s life,” he said. “You have to be certain you’re never going to turn around and see a lack in her.”
Riaz wasn’t even aware of reacting. He just knew he had his clawed hand around Hawke’s throat, his alpha’s hand gripping his wrist in a punishing hold.
Pale blue eyes met his own, Hawke’s own wolf calm.
Growling low in his throat, he withdrew his hand, his claws slicing back into his skin. “I died, Hawke.” Brutal words. “When I first saw Lisette and realized she’d never be mine, I broke into so many pieces I was the walking dead when I returned to the den.”
It was Adria who’d forced him back to life, who’d challenged, fought, and played with him until he wasn’t only alive but wildly, gloriously so. “I trust Adria on a level I don’t even trust you.” As was right. A wolf should trust his mate more than any other … yet Adria wasn’t his mate, except in his heart. “My wolf trusts her.” He let that wolf rise to the surface, let it color his eyes and his voice.
Hawke blew out a breath. “As your mate, Lisette has the potential to earn an even deeper trust.”
Riaz snorted, conscious the alpha was playing devil’s advocate. “And you have the potential to take up knitting.” The wolf thought in far more concrete terms, and it had given its loyalty and its heart to Adria. That someone else might be a better fit, even when that someone else promised to be its mate? It was a pointless consideration.
A quiet nod, an acceptance. “What’re you going to do?”
“Convince Adria I mean what I say.” He’d accept no other outcome.
ADRIA made certain she swapped tasks and shifts to ensure there was no chance of running into Riaz. Her skin hurt, her bed a cold place she hated, her entire body aching with a loss that made her feel as if she’d been beaten. She wasn’t sure she could stop herself from reaching for him if she saw him.
So when she walked into her room the day after their last painful encounter and found a powder pink box bearing his scent on the bedside table, she thought the rawness of her need had made her hallucinate. Touching the box with wondering fingers, she jerked when it didn’t disappear. Neither did the cupcakes within.
“Strawberry cream, red velvet, banana berry, and apple spice.” A knot in her throat, she picked up the apple spice one and licked up a fingerful of the frosting. The sweet delicacy melted on her tongue … the taste merging with the salt of the tear that kissed her mouth.
She didn’t remember telling him her favorites, but she must have.
Collapsing on the bed, she put the cupcake back in the box, her shoulders shaking with the force of her emotions. Good-bye, she thought, he was saying good-bye with the sweetest tenderness. It would’ve been easier if he’d been angry, or if he’d simply ignored her—God, that would’ve hurt—but he’d sent her cupcakes and made her fall in love with him all over again.
“I hate you,” she whispered, dashing away her tears, and it was the biggest lie she had ever told. The lie she told later that day, as she gave three of the cupcakes to Shawnie, Becca, and Ivy, was only a tiny one by comparison. “I tried, but I couldn’t eat them all.” The truth was, she still had the one she’d tasted, couldn’t bear to finish it. It would feel like she was accepting his good-bye, and she wasn’t ready.
Three hours later, she glared at the polished little wooden box sitting in the middle of her desk. “Look!”
Indigo stared dutifully. “It’s lovely. Plain, but I hear lone wolves are sometimes a bit odd with their idea of gifts.”
“Plain?” Incensed—with who, she didn’t know—Adria began to take the box apart.
Indigo leaned in close to watch the demolition, her eyes wide. “It’s a puzzle!” Delight had her reaching for a piece.