A PSY-CHANGELING COLLECTION BY NALINI SINGH
In Beat of Temptation, innocent Tamsyn has always had a place in her heart for Nathan, a blooded DarkRiver sentinel. But is she ready for the fierce demands of the mating bond?
In Stroke of Enticement, a wary young teacher, skeptical about love, arouses the man—and the animal—in an aggressive leopard changeling who must prove his affections are true.
Plus NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED
In Declaration of Courtship, Grace, a shy submissive wolf, finds herself pursued by the last man she ever would have imagined: a SnowDancer lieutenant said to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Plus NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED
In Texture of Intimacy, SnowDancer healer Lara discovers the searing joys—and unexpected challenges—of being mated to quiet, powerful Walker, a man used to keeping his silence.
Cooper had been good.
More good than he’d ever before been in his life.
He’d stayed away from his sexy new systems-maintenance engineer for over six months. Six months. It might as well have been a decade, as far as he was concerned. A dominant predatory changeling male did not do patient when he decided on a woman, but circumstances had forced patience on him, and it was a patience that had worn his wolf’s temper to a feral edge.
With her curvy body and that soft ebony hair he wanted to fist in his hands while he used his mouth, his teeth, to mark her creamy skin, she spoke to his every male instinct. The wolf who was his other half was in full agreement. Both sides of him wanted to claim her until no one had any doubts that she belonged to him.
He’d gritted his teeth and fought the primal urge, however, aware that as the lieutenant in charge of the satellite SnowDancer den located on the northern edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, Grace was under his protection. His status wouldn’t have put the brakes on his pursuit had she been even a moderately strong dominant, but Grace was one of the most submissive wolves in SnowDancer. Cooper knew damn well submissives didn’t automatically obey dominants, but the impulse was a visceral one.
Added to that, Grace had been deeply vulnerable immediately after shifting into a new den. Cooper had known he couldn’t go after her until she’d formed new friendships, created a support system that would give her the strength to reject him if his courtship was unwelcome.
His claws pricked the insides of his skin at the thought, but man and wolf both knew that if she said no, he had to back off. At once. Because where a dominant female might run to incite a man to chase her in a challenge that came from the wild heart of her wolf, if a submissive ran and it wasn’t open play, she was trying to escape.
Don’t run from me, sweetheart, he thought as he took the final steps to her. I only bite a little.
Not quite true, but he was planning to be on his best behavior until she trusted him enough to handle the aggressive sensuality that was an integral aspect of his nature. “Grace.”
Grace felt her heart kick against her ribs at the sound of that deep masculine voice as darkly delicious as it was dangerous to her senses.
Get a grip, Grace. You’re being ridiculous.
It was the same thing she’d been telling herself over and over since her first day in the San Gabriel den, when Cooper had welcomed her to the region. Big and deadly and gorgeous as he was, it wasn’t hard to see why he’d knocked the breath out of her at first sight. The man was a living, breathing aphrodisiac. If they’d been alone, she wasn’t sure she’d have survived that meeting without doing something very stupid.
Like attempting to claim skin privileges from a male she was certain no one dared touch without his explicit permission.
Yet even in her stunned state, she’d known the attraction to be a wild impossibility. While dominants mated or bonded with submissives often enough that it wasn’t considered unusual, the dominance gap between her and Cooper was too wide. They were literally at opposite ends of the hierarchy—her wolf knew Cooper could chew her up and spit her out without noticing.
And still, every time he came near her, her entire body went taut with expectation.
“Hi,” she said, without looking up from her kneeling position in a corner, beside a heating conduit that needed a minor refit.
Akin to the den in the San Rafael Mountains where she’d spent her teenage years, and on a smaller scale than the central den in the Sierra Nevada mountains, this den had literally been carved into and below a mountain, then reinforced with stone walls. The tunnels were wide and spacious, the rooms generous, but underneath the raw natural beauty of the stone pierced with threads of glittering mineral lay a highly complex technological heartbeat, one that Grace helped maintain.
“Has there been a malfunction in one of the critical systems?” she asked, guessing that was why Cooper had taken the time to personally track her down. With both the chief and deputy chief of her department away at different tech conferences, Grace was currently the one in charge. “I can look at it straight away—this isn’t urgent.”
“No, everything’s fine.” He crouched down beside her, immediately taking up all available air in the vicinity.
Concentrate on the job, she ordered herself, attempting to focus on the digital wrench she was using to remove a fried tube . . . but her entire body was attuned to his every breath, her muscles strung tight.
“How’s it going in this section?” he asked, his voice pitched at a level she recognized as “careful.”
She fought the suicidal urge to throw a tool at his head. Her place in the hierarchy didn’t determine her entire personality. As with every other dominance level, submissives could be shy or exuberant, cheerful or moody, sensual or reserved. Grace might be quiet and a little shy in comparison to the majority of her packmates, but she could handle loud voices just fine—growing up with two older adoptive siblings, dominants who’d inherited a hair-trigger temper from their father, she’d heard more than her share.
“We’re about halfway through the overhaul,” she said, wishing he’d forget her place in the hierarchy and see her simply as a woman . . . a woman he wanted.
If he did, what would you do?
Probably run very fast in the other direction.
She twisted the wrench a fraction too hard and almost broke the tube. “Damn.” Cheeks burning, she flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and completed the extraction with care, hotly conscious of Cooper’s watchful gaze. “There. We can recycle the components.”
“Removed without a scratch. Impressive.” He picked up the burned out tube. “Did you get the new shipment you wanted?”
She tore her eyes away from his hands, face heating even further at the raw images that had formed unbidden in her mind—of those big hands on her body, on her breasts, his skin exquisitely rough against her own. Never had she responded to a man in such a way, and that it was a man whose mere presence made her wolf acutely uncomfortable? Surely, fate was having a good laugh at Grace’s expense.
“Yes,” she managed to say in response to his question, “I did. They were high quality, as promised.” Hearing a gentle click as he returned the tube to the floor, she put down the wrench and went to pick up a—
“Grace.” Fingers curling around her wrist.
Her pulse spiked as she stared at that strong, dark-skinned hand so warm and gentle, the calluses on his palm a sensual abrasion. She couldn’t speak, the rush of noise inside her head too loud, drowning out all else.
“Grace.” Softer this time. Coaxing. “Look at me.”
Swallowing, she chanced a peek, her wolf at rigid attention. If he’d commanded, she would’ve obeyed at once, her nature such that defiance of an order from a lieutenant stressed her on a primal level. The fact that she was changeling rather than a wild wolf meant she had the capacity for such defiance, but it would require bone-deep disagreement on her part, enough for the human side of her nature to override the powerful instincts of her wolf.
But Cooper hadn’t commanded. He’d requested . . . in a way that made everything female in Grace come to trembling attention. Now, her eyes met the intense near-black of his and skated away.
When he did nothing but wait with a patience she’d never expected from him, she lifted her lashes again, her gaze locking with his.
It sent a thrill through her wolf. To hold the gaze of a lieutenant was a bold move for any wolf, but for a submissive, it went far beyond that. In any other circumstance, it could’ve been dangerous—just as she had her instincts, dominants had theirs. If one interpreted the eye contact as a challenge, it could end badly. The fact that in the majority of cases where such a thing had happened, both parties had been in wolf form, did nothing to negate the danger of triggering an inadvertent violent response.
Because a submissive would never come out the winner.
Cooper’s thumb brushed over the skittering pulse in her wrist. “There you are.” The low murmur touched her in a caress so intimate, it felt as if she was bare to the skin, exposed and vulnerable.
Inhaling a jerky breath, she broke the shocking eye contact, tugged gently at her wrist. When Cooper’s fingers tightened for an instant, her heart stuttered. He released her before the next beat. Not certain of anything, she fell back on what she knew, picking up another one of her tools to do . . . something. Except her thoughts were jumbled, a burn of lingering heat around her wrist.
She began working on a random non-essential section of the duct, where she could easily fix any errors later.
Beside her, Cooper shifted a fraction, the single inch he closed between them enough to have her wolf quivering and alert, anticipation, desire, and a good dose of panic all mixed in.
“You don’t ever have to fear anything from me, Grace.” It was a rough murmur, a verbal pet of her senses. “If you want me to stop anytime, anywhere, the only word you ever need to use is ‘No.’ Okay?”
She jerked her head up and down, her throat as dry as the shimmering sands of the Mojave.
“But,” he continued, “I don’t intend to go away until you tell me to do so. I’m planning to court you.”
The tool fell from her nerveless fingers to clatter to the floor. Reaching over, Cooper picked it up, put it back into her toolbox. “I’ll leave you to your work . . . but Grace? I’ll be seeing you again soon.” With that promise, he rose and was gone, his powerful body moving with a wild strength kept in fierce check as he strode down the relatively narrow access corridor and out into the den proper.
Heart crashing against her ribs hard enough to hurt, her breath jagged in her throat, Grace collapsed against the smooth stone of the wall. “Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.” Her chest rose and fell in a harsh, uneven rhythm as she attempted to take in air, clear her head.
The effort failed.
Reaching blindly for her water bottle, she swallowed.
The cool liquid wet her throat but did nothing to calm the fever in her blood.
“I’m planning to court you.”
Never in her wildest imaginings had she thought Cooper would speak those words to her. The furthest she’d dared had been improbable erotic fantasies that left her sweat-soaked and aching for completion, fantasies in which they lay skin to skin, her lips on his throat, his hands gripping her hips as he pinned her under him in readiness for his possession. In real life, she’d almost certainly panic if she was ever in that position, her wolf seizing her mind to present quiescent submission to the predator in bed with her, but the hard reality of the hierarchy didn’t matter in her fantasies.
Had Cooper invited her to his bed, those fantasies may have given her some kind of a foundation in which to ground herself, ephemeral though it would’ve been. However a changeling male like Cooper didn’t use the word “court” when he was welcoming a woman to share his body and his bed, whether for the night or longer. No, he was serious.
Big, dangerous, beautiful Cooper wanted her as his.
Background to this bonus epilogue
“Declaration of Courtship” didn’t originally have an epilogue. However, when the stand-alone ebook was released, the epilogue for “Texture of Intimacy” was accidentally inserted into the back. So if you bought the ebook, please don’t worry that you missed anything – you did get the entire story.
However, to make up for the error, I decided to write a free bonus epilogue as a holiday gift. It’s set during Tangle of Need. I hope you enjoy!
Dancing with Cooper
Her toes curled at that deep, familiar voice. She and Cooper had been mated for several months now, and she still couldn’t believe it half the time. Turning in the passenger seat to face him, she just admired her mate for a second—big and strong and gorgeous and wonderful. “Yes?”
“Put on some music, baby,” he said, reaching out to brush his thumb over her lower lip before returning his attention to the road.
Her wolf rubbing against the insides of her skin at the contact, she located his favorite band on the playlist. The sexy, throaty sound of a sax filled the SUV a second later. “I’m excited to visit the main den,” she said, tracing his profile with her gaze, the scenery that had momentarily caught her attention no longer of interest.
“Yeah, me too.” One hand confidently on the steering wheel, he grinned. “I’m so damn happy for Hawke.”
“Yes, I can’t wait to celebrate with him.” Their alpha, a man who’d put his life on the line countless times in order to protect his pack, deserved happiness. “I’m curious to see Sienna, too.” Grace had met their alpha’s mate before, but that had been over two years ago. The slender girl she’d known had grown into a woman strong enough to take on an alpha wolf.
Grace could barely wrap her mind around the idea of any woman being able to handle a male of Hawke’s overwhelming dominance, much less someone so young...but then again, Grace had ended up with a lieutenant who should’ve sent her running in the opposite direction. Instead, he’d coaxed and petted her until she not only trusted him with his teeth at her throat—because Cooper did love to bite—but with her heart.
Her lips curved, her mind filling with memories of the way he’d nipped at her neck to wake her this morning, his big body hot and muscled at her back as he ran his hand down her front. Cooper could be demanding, but Grace liked him that way, liked that he never subdued his natural personality for her.
“Hey.” It was a rough growl of sound. “What are you thinking?” His nostrils flared.
Pressing her thighs together, she tried to fight off the betraying flush under her skin. “Nothing.”
She gave in to temptation and slipped one hand under the sleeve of his white T-shirt to stroke her fingers over his biceps while she drew in the scent of wild earth and dark amber. God, but she loved her mate’s scent. “I want to bite you.”
Not in a million years could she have imagined saying that to any man a year ago, never mind to a dominant who could eat her alive and not even notice. But this was Cooper. Her Cooper. Who let her do whatever she liked with his body, and who was utterly delighted when she made demands of her own.
Now, however, he narrowed his eyes. “Bad, bad wolf,” he growled. “Tormenting your mate when he can’t pull off the freeway and haul you over onto his lap.”
Grace laughed, the sound sensual and private. “We exit in twenty-eight more miles.”
A quick glance out of near-black eyes ringed with feral yellow as his wolf rose to the surface. “Are you trying to seduce me into a quickie before we reach the den?”
Toes curling and cheeks blazing, Grace said, “Um...yes.”
Cooper groaned, before picking up her hand and bringing it to his mouth...to nip sharply at the fleshy pad below her thumb.
The sensual punishment went straight to the pulse between her thighs. “Ouch.”
Licking lazily over the spot, Cooper said, “Weren’t you shy once?”
Well aware he adored it when she was open with her desires, she said, “I’m still shy. Just not with you.” He’d taught her that there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her, her wolf’s awareness of his dominance inciting a sense of pure safety inside her—because Cooper would never turn his strength against her, would use it always to protect and to cherish.
“Good.” Her mate kissed the same spot he’d bitten.
“Now”—he very deliberately placed her hand on her thigh and both of his own on the steering wheel—“sit there and try to look like a cabbage or something else equally unappetizing so my hard-on doesn’t kill me in the next twenty-seven miles.”
Her eyes dipped. Her stomach clenched. And Cooper’s growl filled the car.
Twenty seven miles and an additional twenty minutes of driving down back roads later, Cooper found a private spot in a secluded grove. A second after that, Grace was straddling her ravenous mate’s lap with her dress shoved around her hips and his teeth at her throat. Shuddering, she decided she could do her biting later.
Despite their unplanned detour, they arrived at the Sierra Nevada den in plenty of time to hide out with the other lieutenants, in the trees not far from the den. Hawke didn’t know his most senior people had decided to disobey his order that they were to remain in their own territories.
“As if we’d miss his mating ceremony,” Alexei said with a shake of his head.
The blond lieutenant, all golden hair and blade-sharp cheekbones, was astonishingly handsome. Grace would’ve been intimidated by him even if he hadn’t been a powerful dominant. But now he looked at her and smiled.
Blushing, she averted her eyes, her wolf uncomfortable with holding his gaze. Cooper squeezed her shoulders where she was tucked up against him. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her dominant packmates, but this forest clearing currently held nine lieutenants. It was a little overwhelming.
“Stop flirting with Grace,” Cooper muttered after nuzzling the top of her head with his chin, his words clearly directed at Alexei. “Don’t you have a harem of your own?”
“Fuck you, Coop,” Alexei said easily, and shifted so he was in Grace’s line of sight. “Introduce me to your beautiful mate so I can ask her to save me a dance.”
Hand curving over the back of Grace’s neck, Cooper stroked his thumb over her pulse. “Grace, this is Alexei, the Russian Bridegroo—“ He laughed and barely avoided the punch Alexei threw at his nose. “Hey, no messing with the face. Grace’ll get mad and then no dance for you.”
Grace’s lips twitched at the interplay; obviously her mate and the youngest SnowDancer lieutenant were good enough friends to be rude to one another. Not only that, but Alexei had a reputation for being reserved—a trait nowhere in evidence at this instant. “Hi,” she said with a smile and a quick instant of eye-contact.
“How about that dance, Grace?” Alexei asked gently. “Coop’s been keeping you to himself all this time.”
Grace looked up to meet Cooper’s gaze, saw quiet encouragement in them. “Yes,” she said. “I’ll save you a dance.”
Cooper released her to exchange a back-slapping embrace with Riaz, the dark-haired lieutenant having just arrived. Alexei remained beside her. “You realize I’m not the only one who’s going to want to dance with you?” he bent down to murmur.
Grace nodded. Cooper had mentioned it to her, though she’d already kind of expected it. He was a lieutenant and these were his friends. It would’ve been unusual if they hadn’t been affectionately nosy about his mate. “I’m prepared,” she said. “Though you might want to watch out for your feet.”
Her wolf bared its teeth in a grin inside her when Alexei laughed. She could handle these dominants, she thought, even en masse.
“Grace.” Cooper held out his hand. “Come say hello to Riaz.”
Sliding her hand into her mate’s, she smiled at Cooper’s best friend, while around them, the other lieutenants caught up with one another. “It's so nice to see you, Riaz.”
In reply, the lieutenant rubbed the back of his knuckles over her cheek in a caress between packmates.
Not long after that, they got the word to be quiet, as Judd was leading Hawke into the ambush. “Should I sneak away?” she asked Cooper, not wanting to intrude on the reunion between the alpha and his lieutenants. “The other lieutenants' mates aren’t here.”
Cooper shook his head. “Since they’re all based in this area, they’re helping cover things so we can have this meeting. You, on the other hand, Hawke hasn’t seen since our mating ceremony.” A tap on her nose. “He’ll expect you to be right here with me.”
Then their alpha burst into the clearing and it erupted in sheer, wild joy. Delighted and excited, Grace’s wolf strained against her skin, wanting to see and scent everything. When she found her face cupped in the hands of the alpha himself a quarter of an hour later, she chanced meeting the pale, pale blue of Hawke’s gaze for a single second of quivering alertness.
She was wolf. She was a SnowDancer. Wolf and woman, both parts of her loved the SnowDancer alpha, as did every other packmate in this clearing. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a primal force of nature—one who understood his people, dominant and submissive both. He held her with a gentleness at odds with his powerful presence, a smile in his voice as he spoke.
“Is Cooper treating you right? I’ll beat him up for you if he isn’t.”
Nervousness breaking into laughter when Cooper snarled behind her, she impulsively hugged her alpha, overjoyed that he’d found his mate. His arms came around her at once. It wasn’t like being hugged by Cooper—Cooper was hers, made her feel safe and protected and happy all at once.
Hawke occupied a different sphere; her wolf’s trust in him was absolute, but she also knew there were certain lines she couldn’t cross when it came to this man with his ice-blue eyes and hair of silver-gold. The rules of hierarchy were critical to the health of a changeling wolf pack. But there was no hierarchy between mates—there were no lines she couldn’t cross with Cooper, no areas where she couldn’t tread.
“My brother already made the offer,” she said when she drew back.
That made Hawke grin and kiss her on the lips before releasing her to Cooper—who nipped her ear in a show of possessiveness that made her want to pet him. “We better go find your damn brother and the rest of your family soon, before they decide to send out a hunting party.”
“They love you.” Grace’s mother, especially, adored Cooper.
Ten minutes later, Milena squeezed Grace into a warm maternal embrace, then did the same to Cooper before making him bend so she could kiss him on both cheeks. “You make my Grace happy. You’re a good boy.”
Cooper, who outranked her mother a gazillion times over, just smiled and said, “Yes, ma’am.” Then, he shook hands with her father, exchanged a “man” hug with her grinning brother, and even lifted her sister up off her feet in his arms.
Pia squeaked, then laughed, hugging him back. Her siblings might’ve initially worried about Cooper’s strength in comparison to Grace’s, but now—“The way that man looks at you,” Pia had said during a flying visit three weeks ago, “he’d gnaw off his own arm before he ever hurts you. Hell, Gracie, I think he’d stand still and let you stab him through the heart if that’s what you wanted to do.”
“I might as well stab myself through the heart,” Grace had replied, eyes burning and throat thick.
Without Cooper, she wouldn’t have a heartbeat.
Today, they caught up with her family around a tableful of snacks organized by her mother, before separating to get ready for Hawke and Sienna’s ceremony. That ceremony was beautiful, made Grace tear up at the loyalty and passion of it.
“Hey.” Cooper caught a teardrop that had rolled down her cheek. “Why the tears?”
“It’s so wonderful,” she choked out. “And it makes me think of our ceremony.” Theirs had been smaller and held under the midday sun rather than at night, but it had been drenched in the same sense of love, of pack.
“Yeah.” A glint in his eye she recognized. “My favorite part came that night though, in the back seat of the SUV.”
Grace’s skin heated up and it had nothing to do with embarrassment. “I can’t believe you brought that up in public,” she whispered under her breath, her mind bombarding her with erotic memories of exactly what her wicked mate had talked her into that long, lazy night.
“Why not?” Cooper cupped her cheek, his smiling kiss long and slow and addictingly sinful. “I think we should repeat the experience tonight.”
Grace rubbed her nose against his, her hands fisted in his hair. She knew how to play with her teasing, dangerous wolf. “Okay.”
The yellow ring returned around his irises, his gaze nightglow in the shadows where they stood and his body hard. “We’re leaving right now.”
Laughing, Grace shook her head and kissed her scowling mate’s mouth, the jagged scar on his left cheek a familiar accent. “No, we’re not. Tonight is about pack.”
Cooper demanded one more kiss before turning back to the Pack Circle. “Yeah, it is.”
The rest of the night passed in joyful celebration. She danced and drank champagne toasts and laughed with her packmates. The tech contingent invited her for a private drink around ten-thirty, and she left Cooper talking to one of the lieutenants while she connected with her friends, but they met up again later that night.
“My dance, I believe,” her mate said, tugging her against him as the slow, sultry sounds of a romantic ballad filled the air.
Her cheek pressed to his chest and her heart beating in time with his own, Grace closed her eyes. My Cooper, she thought...just as he rubbed his cheek against her temple and murmured, “My pretty, sexy Grace. I’m so glad you’re mine.”
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Lara woke skin-to-skin with a long, hard male body, her head tucked under his chin, her hands against his chest, her legs intertwined with his. Lean muscle and a rough masculine heat, he surrounded her, possessed her.
As she did him.
Eyes still closed, she luxuriated in the scent of dark water and snow-dusted firs . . . and the exquisite tug of a bond that tied her inexorably to the quiet, powerful telepath who was the only man she had ever wanted to call her own.
Opening her eyes on that primal thought, she flexed her hand on the tensile strength of Walker’s chest, the firm surface covered with a sprinkling of dark blond that was an invitation to her senses. Her wolf rubbed up against the inside of her skin, unable to contain its delight, wanting only to touch, to pet.
“Unconditional skin privileges.”
That’s what her mate had given her. And she had every intention of taking advantage, her thirst for him endless. How could it be otherwise, when he was such an intelligent, dangerous, beautiful man? The ease of sleep did nothing to hide the fact that he was built lean and strong. Wide shoulders, ridged abdomen, taut muscle, and a will akin to steel, this was a man who would stand unflinching against any wind. And he was hers, touched her with a devotion that was breathtaking in its passion, piercing in its honesty.
Shivering at the painful beauty of the bond that connected them, she shifted to look down into a face that was all clean angles and sun-golden skin, which betrayed how much time he spent out of doors. His lashes threw crescent shadows on his cheeks, his dark blond hair threaded with the finest sprinkling of silver.
Butterflies in her stomach.
He was, she thought, one of those men who would only become better looking with age, the determined force of his personality reflected on his face. Given that he was already the sexiest man she knew, she was going to be in serious trouble as the years passed—a single look, and she had the feeling she’d fold like cooked spaghetti.
The thought of growing old with him made her blood turn effervescent, the natural dark tan of her skin radiant with warmth. Unable to hold in the happiness, she pushed back her unruly curls and leaned down to brush her mouth over his, felt his lips curve the slightest fraction. “I knew you were awake.” The wolf that was her other half scampered playfully inside her mind.
He ran his hand up and down her back. “Is it time to get up?”
Lara wouldn’t have bothered checking the time if not for Marlee and Toby, pups who were under Walker’s protection . . . and now her own. Her family. One was his daughter, the other his nephew, but he was father to them both, this man who had been willing to give up his life on the slim chance that the children would find sanctuary in SnowDancer.
“No,” she said after a quick glance at the small comm unit on the bedside table. “It’s been less than an hour.” An hour of peace, the battle won, the enemy routed so decisively they’d prove only a lack of intelligence should they decide to return.
Lashes rising, irises of a striking light green meeting her own. Not soft. Walker would never be that. But his gaze was . . . open in a way it had never before been. Until she felt invited into him.
Body aligned with the dark heat of his, she ran her finger through his hair and asked, “Are the kids okay?”
He continued to stroke her back, the calluses on his palm creating sensual friction against her greedy skin.
So long she’d waited for Walker’s touch.
It had torn her to pieces, made her bleed when he’d told her this could never be, his soul too scarred by the emotionless chill that was Silence. Now she knew that though the power-hungry Council had attempted to condition emotion out of him, they had never succeeded, his heart so powerful he’d managed to love even in the pitiless cage of the PsyNet.
His niece and nephew.
His lost sister.
They had been, and were, a family because of Walker, because he’d refused to allow them to fragment, refused to give up on any one of them, whether cold-eyed assassin or heartbroken child.
“Yes, they’re fine,” he said in response to her question, no change in his expression to betray the fact he was in telepathic communication with the kids. “Toby and his friends are shooting hoops with Drew, and Marlee’s with Ava.”
“Ava’s a good friend.” Given the speed and accuracy of the pack grapevine, the other woman had likely heard that Walker Lauren was inside Lara’s bedroom about two minutes after the event. Lara knew her best friend would ambush her later for a debrief, but until then, Ava was doing her best to ensure they had some more private time.
“Marlee just told me Ben’s snoring in wolf form, she made him so tired.”
Laughter bubbled up in her throat, an image of an utterly exhausted wolf pup curled up nose to tail forming in her mind. “Poor Ben.”
Ava’s son adored Marlee, the unexpected friendship between the two innocent and joyful. Ben was five and a half, Marlee four years older, but in spite of the age gap, they made each other laugh until they ended up rolling around on the floor, holding onto their stomachs. Lara wasn’t the only one in the pack who wondered if the friendship was an indicator of a far different relationship in the future, but they were babies yet.
Before she could give voice to her thoughts, Walker’s eyes caught hers, held them. “I’m not likely to be an easy mate.”
The stark statement was unexpected, but she knew her answer, “I think you’re wonderful. My perfect mate.”
“Remember that,” he said, continuing to hold her gaze, the intensity of him a near physical touch. “When you ask yourself what you’re doing with me.”
A sudden fear gripped her, an amorphous, cold thing born of his certainty that their mating would be no simple dance. Shoving it away before it could take her hostage, her wolf’s teeth bared in a snarl, she held onto the glory of a bond that came from a place beyond fear or doubt, a place untainted by the shadows of the past.
All she said, however, was, “All right,” because she knew Walker. He’d been marked deep within by the life he’d lived, the choices he’d had to make. It would take him time to trust in happiness, in a forever where he no longer walked alone. “But make me a promise?”
Watchful attention, his hand stilling its caressing strokes.
“That you’ll talk to me if there’s a problem. Don’t close up on me.” It was what she feared most. She knew that while in the PsyNet, Walker had managed to maintain the fiction of total Silence, of unrelenting emotionlessness, icy and without heart, even as he fought to save his family. His fidelity to them had been unwavering, his dedication absolute. And throughout it all, no one had suspected that Walker Lauren was anything but loyal to the ruling order.
That kind of a will could turn into a stone wall.
Walker’s answer was no simple agreement. “I’ll try, Lara.” His hand pressed her closer. “But the quiet, if not the Silence, is a part of me.”
“I like your quiet.” He was so centered, so solid that he’d become her anchor. “The only thing that’ll hurt me is if you use that quiet as a weapon.”
“That won’t happen.” A vow, simple and binding.
She smiled and knew it held everything of what she felt for him, her soul stripped bare. Some would say she was at a huge disadvantage in this relationship, her emotions naked while his were shielded behind a thousand layers of control, but she knew differently. Never would she forget the day he handed her his heart.
“It’s fixed. As long as you don’t mind more than a few scars.”
Scarred and battered it might be, but Walker’s heart was a gift beyond price.