Welcome, VIP reader, to Krystal’s secret cave of bonus content!
The council of dragons had assembled. The threat to Reylea was more serious than he’d realized. His father rarely called for a council. In fact, it’d been at least three years since the last.
Col stood in the shadows of the pillars of the Palace of the the House of Li’Vhram. His family had ruled the N’ra Valley for generations. This palace was built by his ancestors’ ancestors. This circular meeting space was open to the sky. Built with boulders and stones moved by dragons and shaped and forged by dragon’s breath. By fire.
The black rocks shone with the smoothness of age and the power of his kind. The pillars stretched into the open red-orange sky. The two suns of Reylea sent warmth to Col’s skin. He raised his face to the heavens and took a deep breath. This would be his first council to stand beside his father.
Within the ring of pillars sat a ring of black stone chairs—thronelike and dark and beckoning. He looked forward to the day he would take over for his father. To the day he would be honored as a king.
A man sat in each chair. Each wearing a tosa around their waist with the colors of their family beneath the leather flaps. Their feet were strapped with leather boots. Each wore skins over their shoulders as a cloak. Chests were bare, except for the tattoos that denoted them as Kings of their Houses.
Col bore the mark of his house in ink, but only his father bore the mark of a king. That mark would not pass to Col until his father’s death. And he was in no hurry to add it.
“My son,” a deep voice called from the opposite side of the room. Col glanced up to meet his father’s intense gaze. The large man gestured to his side.
Col crossed the room and stood to the right of his father.
“Council, I have the pleasure of introducing you to my son this turn. I know that many of you have also brought heirs to this meeting, as it may be our last chance to honor this sacred meeting place of the Royal House of Li’Vhram.”
Col’s chest tightened. Words crowded to his lips, but he stilled the impulse. Why would this be the last time? What was happening?
He wasn’t the only one confused. None of the sitting Kings even so much as twitched at his father’s comment, but the other sons. The other heirs standing at their father’s sides. They all mirrored his thoughts and worries in their uncertain gazes.
“It was good of you to call the Council to meet. Have you spoken with your magick-bender about the fires?” Vothan Li’Rhath spoke from across the circle. His voice was steady but held hints of worry.
“What does your magick-bender say?” Col’s father—Gar Li’Vhram—asked back.
Lothan shook his head, dark braids swinging back and forth across his shoulders. “She disappeared last year. She was the last magick-bender in Sik Valley.” He pointed to the white-haired male sitting in the next chair to his left. “We have relied on advice from our neighbors in Kesh. From their magick-bender.”
“Ours says the mountains are rumbling and cannot be quieted,” Col’s father said, his tone filled with sorrow. “She says we must find a new home.”
Heads around the circle nodded. Apparently, their magick-bender wasn’t the only one with that message. But a new home where? A new valley far from N’ra? How far would they have to go?
Col shifted from one foot to the other, trying to play off the feelings of anxiety coiling in his belly, squeezing like a snake crushing its prey. He didn’t like feeling like prey. He didn’t like feeling weak or helpless. Why couldn’t they just put out the fires?
“Ours say the same,” several kings answered together.
“We cannot all move. Our world isn’t big enough. There are forests near Mevah that belong to no one, but dragons do not do well in forests. We need mountains,” said another.
“All the mountains are occupied. We’ve have flown for thousands of miles,” another deep voice joined the conversation. “There is nowhere to go.” The tension in the space grew thicker and the darkness squeezing at Col’s insides grew stronger. The air in the meeting place was warming. So many dragons in one place. If they all became angry the stone chairs would heat up and turn red. But dragons didn’t burn. Fire was part of them. But even a dragon needed to eat and the fires streaking through the forests and valleys as of late were killing other tribes and prey alike.
“Please. Friends. Allies. Kings of Reylea. This is why I have called you here. This is why we must plan. We can save our people. We can save all the Tribes of this world.” Col’s father turned to him and spoke softly. “Fetch Mitera, my son. She must speak to the kings. She waits just outside at the bottom of the steps.”
Col didn’t hesitate at his father’s command. He knew Mitera had been visiting with his mother and father privately for the last few weeks. They’d had meetings nearly every day. Some lasted all day. Nothing had been shared by either parent. Or by the magick-bender who lived in their N’ra Valley.
He walked along the outside pillars and then down the main steps to toward a wide plain that lay at the foot of the mountain where his family and the rest of the dragon Tribe here lived. There were tents. A few stone buildings for regional meetings with other tribes. And the home of the magick-bender—Mitera.
Mitera was a quiet woman. She was beautiful and pale with long golden hair that reminded him of the sky during sunrise. She kept her hair tightly bound in a long braid that trailed down her back nearly to her ankles. She wore long blue dresses which she made herself. From what he didn’t know. He’d never seen her trade anything with anyone. He’d never seen her grow food like some of the other tribes. She didn’t shift into an animal like the other tribes either.
But there was something ethereal about her. Something peaceful and calming. His family loved her. The other animal tribes in the valley loved her. Magick-benders were honored among Reylea as the priestesses of Fate. They held the knowledge of the magick that bound Reyleans souls with mates. They were the only ones who could harness the magick of Fate and do amazing things with it.
He’d seen her do simple tricks to entertain children, but he’d seen her put a full-grown dragon on his knees at her feet too. She was powerful in her own right. Powerful in a way no other Reyean could understand.
“Col.” Mitera stood from the stair where she’d been sitting, waiting for the summons.
Strange to think that a being so powerful would sit and wait on a king she could bend to her will with just a look. But magick-benders didn’t rule…they didn’t want to. The dragons had offered them spots on the council numerous times. Not a single one ever accepted.
“Mitera, my father asks that you join the council to speak.” He assumed she knew what about. He assumed it was whatever his parent and she had been talking about already.
She nodded and he saw a flash of sadness darken her face. The smile she usually wore was missing, replaced with something fake and forced. Her shoulders drooped beneath the smooth shining fabric of her long blue dress. She looked…tired.
He held out an arm and she took it, leaning against him as if she really were nearly too tired to stand.
“Are you unwell,” Col said, keeping his voice down. They might be on the steps of the meeting place dozens of lengths away from the council, but dragons had very good hearing.
She patted his arm and gave him a pensive smile. “I am well, Col. Thank you.”
“You have nothing to fear from the Kings,” Col said, trying to guess at her discomfort.
“They will not welcome the news I have to bear to them.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, but the snake in his gut writhed and a little bit more fear took hold. He didn’t like being uncertain. He didn’t like the way her voice waffled just a bit. She wasn’t scared, but she wasn’t unconcerned either. Mitera was never upset. In fact, he’d never seen a magick-bender anywhere get riled or upset or scared—ever.
Col walked Mitera up to his father’s seat. From there she dropped her hand from his arm and continue on alone. She didn’t stop until she was in the center of the circle of Kings.
“Most of us have magick-benders in our valleys. Why should we listen to yours, Li’Vhram?”
Mitera spread her arms to the heavens. Her skin brightened. She looked directly at him and then her eyes turned pure white. Not white in color, but more like a white flame. Like a dragon’s eyes when the fire inside showed itself. Except dragons burned orange. Mitera’s flame was pure energy. It wasn’t fire.
He put a hand on the back of his father’s chair and watched mesmerized by the power unfolding before him. He’d seen Mitera do magick before, but this was beyond anything. White crackling energy swam around her in a seemingly unorganized cloud. A few minutes later, he could see the outline of his home world. He’d flown over it enough to recognize the mountains and valleys. She was making an image of Reylea. Of the entire planet.
“Reylea is dying.” Her voice boomed and echoed like the voices of dozens of men, unnatural and fierce and godlike… “There is only one way to save you, but it requires you working in close proximity with many other Tribes. Many other species. I have spoken to the others. We will open doors for you to leave Reylea. An Exodus Day is coming quickly. You must prepare. You must send word to all the tribes. They need to gather together and prepare to leave this world. Reylea is burning. The fire is rising from the core. We cannot stop the fire. We can only send you away, my children.”
Col watched transfixed as the image before him showed liquid fire rising and bursting from mountaintops. The forests burned. The sky around Reylea filled with ash. Everything was destroyed. Every being on the planet would die.
For the first time in his life, Col felt true fear. This was something that could not be fought. This was something that didn’t care how strong he was. It was coming for everyone. Everything.
He would lose his home.
“Why do our magick-benders say nothing of this?” One of the Kings called out to Mitera. Voices joined his agreeing, telling her their magic-benders had been silent.
Mitera’s mouth flattened into a tight line. Her white eyes blazed brighter and magick-poured from her hands like fire from a dragon’s mouth. Col fought the urge to step backward. The other Kings looked just as uncomfortable. Several of their sons were backing up just a step or two.
“They do not speak out of respect. I am their elder.” Mitera’s voice grew again. This time the very floor of the meeting place vibrated with her voice and began to glow from her magick. Instead of hot, from the dragons, it radiated the white raw power flowing from her. “They will speak now that I have spoken. If you do not heed this warning, you will die. The Exodus Day is coming. The magick-benders will prepare the doorways—portals to a new world.”
Murmurs sounded around the circle. The illumination in the air around Mitera faded. The image of Reylea dissipated and her magick faded like mist after the sun rose. She stumbled forward, toward Col and his father, but she wasn’t going to make it. Col leaped forward, catching her before she fell. He could feel how drained she was. Using all the magick had worn her out.
He slipped an arm beneath her legs and lifted her up, cradling her against his chest. “I will take you home, Mitera.”
She nodded and let her head drop against his chest. He left the circle with her, ignoring the shouts and arguing of the Kings rising behind him. She’d done her part. She’d warned them. Mitera was an elder, whatever that meant.
Their world was dying, but she’d said there was a way to save them. “We will prepare, Mitera. I promise we will be ready. N’ra Valley will be ready.”
“You would’ve been a great king, Col Li’Vhram,” Mitera whispered, her breath soft on his chest.
“There is much to do. Worrying about a throne is a waste of time.” He walked down the stairs, taking each step gingerly to avoid jarring her too much. She was so small in his arms. She looked young. Not much older than him. But she’d called herself and elder and honestly, she looked the way she looked now even when he had been a child. She hadn’t aged. Why hadn’t he noticed until now?
“What are you Mitera?”
“I am a magick-bender. What else would I be?”
She chuckled and shook her head. “I am part of the magick that built this world. I will be part of the magick that saves it. When Exodus Day comes, you must be ready, Col. Make sure that this Valley is ready. Your people will need strong leaders. You must be ready.”
“My father is King. He will lead.”
She did not comment. And he let the silence hang between them. He didn’t want to hear more about him being the leader. The only way he would lead…would be because he father wasn’t there. He wasn’t ready for that to happen.
Col continued across the grassy space toward the tent Mitera called home. He ducked inside and spread her across a bed of furs, covering her with a heavy woven blanket, the same blue color as her dress. “Rest.”
She grabbed his wrist and stilled him. Her eyes were white and glowing again. “Exodus will come and with it much pain.”
Col’s chest tightened. He couldn’t draw a breath. He couldn’t look away. She held him transfixed with her gaze. Then the light went out. She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep. He watched her for a few minutes, listening to her breath. Her heartbeat.
She wasn’t gone. Just sleeping.
He wasn’t sure he’d sleep well again. She’d shown them the end of Reylea. The end of life as they’d known it for generations.
How could their world just…end? Where would they go? How?
No one had asked her those questions. Did the Kings know more about magick than they let on? Were there secrets about the magick-benders, stories he’d yet to hear?
He marched out of Mitera’s tent and back toward the council. He might not be King yet, but he had a right to know what was really going on.
Everyone did now.
The busy marketplace was bustling as usual. No one expected Exodus day to turn into a nightmare. Everything was organized. Everything was ready. Everyone knew when they were supposed to head up the mountain and cross the portal. Each tribe had an assigned time. An assigned order.
The aonkan were last on the magick-bender’s list. It would be days before anyone would allow the outcasts a chance to leave Reylea.
It was fine.
He could wait.
They would all end up in the same place eventually. Saved from the coming doom.
Owen glanced up at the pale orange sky and rolled his neck, cracking a few joints in the process. His sister was late. Which wasn’t unusual.
She’d been sneaking away from the tribe for months now to see him. It was the only contact or news he had any more from his family. From his Tribe. The tribe he had led successfully until Kalil had found a way to challenge him and use magick to dishonorable defeat him. The usurper had cheated in the fight. But no one saw it. And so the elders honored the outcome.
He growled and shoved down the unpleasant memory. What was done was done. There was no going back for him. He was branded aonkan—outcast. It didn’t matter that he was a better alpha. Stronger. Honest. Self-less instead of power-hungry. No one cared.
They would suffer under Kalil’s leadership. Eventually they would see it.
The younger alpha was inexperienced—cunning and underhanded—but still inexperienced. It didn’t matter. Owen could never go back. He rubbed the raised scar on his neck. The one his own father had burned into his flesh and pronounced him aonkan.
No longer worthy of a tribe. No longer worthy of a family. No longer allowed to take a mate.
He had left without a word, but he hadn’t gone as far as they thought. And he’d been secretly meeting with Ava to keep tabs on his family. So far nothing major had happened and everyone was safe. But a neighboring bear tribe had moved their camp closer, so tension was mounting, and Owen expected bloodshed any day now. Especially with everyone moving closer to the mountain to leave today.
The magick-bender monitoring the portal hadn’t given the signal to start the trek yet. Exodus day would really be more of an Exodus week. Their world was burning. The valley beyond N’ra had already burnt to ash. Pools of molten fire bubbled and hissed in various places where the earth had crumbled in on itself.
“Owen.” Ava’s clear voice rang out against the bustle of people.
He shielded his eyes to the two suns in the sky and smiled up at his sister. “It is a good day now.”
“How will I find you after we go through the portal?” She sat next to him and pulled up a blade of grass to chew on. They both looked up to the peak of the mountain where a silvery circle of magick slithered and rotated in the sky.
The portal was floating in the air at the peak of the mountain. Previously it had been too high for any to get through that didn’t fly until today. But, today it looked level with the peak. The magick-bender had been hard at work moving it into place so that the Exodus could start today.
“I will track you. Don’t worry. Wherever the tribe goes, I won’t stray far.” He slipped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed her in for a hug. “How is mother?”
“Anxious.” Ava’s voice trembled slightly. “She’s not doing well. A fire started on the opposite side of the valley yesterday. It’s spreading fast. The smoke in the air is making it hard for everyone to breath. At least here in the center of the valley the breeze is keeping it cleaner.”
Owen’s bear growled. “Kalil should’ve already moved the tribe. Other bears from the western valleys are already here,” he said, thumbing at a large encampment of tents to his left. Ava leaned back and peered behind him.
“I have to go through with the tribe, you know. I can’t stay with you.” She gave his big shoulder a nudge.
“I know, little sister. Though it means very much to me that you met me ahead of time.” He gave her a quick kiss on the temple.
A distant scream caught his ear. Every muscle in his body paused. The terror-filled cry was followed by another and another. Then the shout of fire spread across the trading place.
The earth shook and exploded only a dozen lengths from where he and Ava sat. Dirt and grass and bits of molten rock spewed at them from the impact. He whirled, covering Ava with his body to shield her from the debris.
“What’s happening?” Ava shrieked, her tone rising along with the intensity of the frightened people around them.
“The fire is here! The valley is lost already.” Owen jumped to his feet, catching Ava’s hand. The marketplace was in shambles. People were fleeing in a panic. Children were screaming for their mothers. Mothers were screaming for their children. Men were shouting orders between the crashes of the rocks and fire falling on them from the sky.
“We need cover,” Owen said, his voice deepening to a bellow.
“I have to get back home, Owen. They’ll look for me.” She slipped her fingers from his, but he caught her wrist before she could break away.
“No,” he said, pulling her closer and making eye contact. “Look.” He pointed out the road toward the where the tribe would be coming from. Fire spewed from the ground. A sink hole of lava barred returning to the valley where his family made their home. Flames licked at the long grasses and crept ever closer.
“No! Owen, we have to get them. Everyone is there!” She wrenched at his hand and growled, but he took her beating and kept tugging her the opposite direction.
“We’ll look for a way around.” He led her through the swath of panicked people, all racing toward the mountain, being cut down by the dozens every time another boulder of fire and ash collided with the earth. The orange sky was darkening with smoke and shadows of dragons soaring above the chaos.
They came out of the trading place on the opposite side of the makeshift village, only to find another river of fire running across more fields of waving grass, turning everything to flame and ash ahead of them in every direction but the mountain.
A chunk of flaming rock came from the sky, barreling toward them like a falling star. Owen grabbed his sister and leapt to the side. The impact blasted them even further. He curled his body and arms around Ava and took the brunt of their fall back to the ground. The impact was like being kicked by a dragon.
His head rang and the heat of the fire around him was closing in. His animal said run. The man in him agreed. They weren’t going to get back to the tribe. No matter what they tried. The valley was lost. And so was their family.
His heart cinched up, refusing to pump. His lungs were weighed down like they’d been filled with rocks. He raised his face to the burning sky and roared, letting his bear release the anger and anguish filling his soul.
His tribe wouldn’t make it to the portal. They wouldn’t be able to cross the river of fire. There wasn’t a way around. He and his sister would be lucky to make it at all. Anyone would be lucky to make it. No one had started up the mountain. The portal was still too high off the ground. Even if they could get to the top, the edge of the ring was at least twenty feet above the tallest tree.
“What do we do?” Ava clung to him now and sobbed. Her face was red. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Mother! Father!” She let her bear loose just a little. Her eyes went gold and her roar joined his, breaking through the din of the chaotic trading place.
“We have to get to the portal!” He turned and joined the flood of people running toward the mountain. Back through the village. Across the only field of grass not burning…yet. Chunks of rock fell all around him, killing people instantly. The smell of burning flesh made his eyes water and his heart ache. His people were dying.
Not just the bear people. But all of them. There were packs of wolves. Prides of lions. Famlies of tigers. He scented nearly every type of Reylean in the river of panicking people. None were shifted into beast form yet, but once they reached the tree line, he saw many shift and take to the slopes on four legs.
It would be faster, but he wouldn’t be able to hang onto Ava without fingers. He wasn’t going to lose her. He looked up and behind them into the sky and pulled her to the right, avoiding another incoming chunk of molten rock.
“Owen!” His sister cried out, pointing ahead. The earth was crumbling. Trees were disappearing into the earth like someone had grabbed their roots and pulled them down.
“We’ll make it.”
Her eyes were wide and fearful. She slowed her pace just enough for Owen to notice. He didn’t break his stride, just swung her up into his arms and kept running for the river of fire trying to cut them off from their only means of escape.
He reached the edge of the river and threw her, screaming into the air, launching her high and over the flames. She landed on the other side of the lava river with a heavy thud, rolling a few times before she jumped to her feet and turned to him angrily, screaming at him something he couldn’t make out over the bugles of flying dragons above and screaming people around them.
It didn’t matter. She was safe.
Others copied him, throwing their loved ones across the flames. Children. Mates. Some tried to leap with babies in their arms. Some ran parallel to the river of flame, hoping to outrun it and get to the other side.
Some made it.
But he didn’t have time to mourn. He would find a way to make sure his sister lived. That’s all that mattered now. One mission. One focus. Save Ava.
Owen backed up and then ran for a higher rocky place a little to his right. He shifted as he ran, and the flood of people parted. No one wanted to get run over by a charging Reylean bear.
Rocks crashed around him.
The heat from the fire increased.
He reached the rocky outcropping and jumped. He barely saw the flames below him, only the widening bank of the river of lava. Grass met his paws and he let his enormous body roll over and over until the momentum of his jump faded.
Owen shifted back into a person and ran toward his sister, caught her hand again and then charged up the side of the mountain.
Path be damned.
He just had to get to the top. Now. Before the fiery balls of rock knocked away the mountain from beneath them.
“Arms around my neck.” He bellowed, putting his sister on his back.
“I can climb.”
“I’m not losing you, Ava. Arms around my neck.”
She complied and then he let his hands and feet partially shift. Using his long claws for traction, he pulled them up the sloped side of the mountain. The path everyone was headed for wound back and forth gradually.
There wasn’t time for that.
They needed to go straight up.
He. Would. Not. Fail.
Not this time.
Wolves ran past him. Lions. Tigers. All sorts of predators. But Owen paid them no mind.
One paw in front of the other, he pushed ever closer to the peak. Ever closer to the silvery liquid horizon of the magickal portal. Ever closer to the safety the portal represented.
The ground beneath him began to crumble and fall away. The mountain side was sliding. He dodged boulders. Rockslides tumbling down, bouncing this way and that, determined to knock him from his goal.
People were screaming all around him. Begging for help. Crying for loved ones. Ava was sobbing into his shoulder. Still he kept his eyes on the goal. There was no stopping now. Not for anything. The entire mountain was breaking apart and falling into to the lava river in the valley below.
He was close. A few more strides.
He pulled them up one last ridge. The magick bender was crouched on the ground. Blood poured from a wound in her side.
Wolves rushed past him, leaping into the horizon and disappearing into the magick.
“Go!” She shouted and pointed him toward the silver swirl of magick. “Hurrry. I can’t hold it much longer.”
He took one short moment to look over his shoulder at the valley below. He shouldn’t have.
Fire had swallowed everything. The screams of Reyleans filled the air. Everything he’d been blocking out during the came crashing rushing forward like the din of war.
He pulled Ava from his back, cradled her in his arms and jumped.
Knox rapped on the back door of the town community center. He didn’t like being around all these people, but if it meant he got to see Katherine, even for a few minutes, he’d risk it.
He’d come around every day if he could, but the pack would get suspicious. They would wonder where he’d been. He’d already been growled at for smelling like humans. Even his brother Raish, their pack’s Vaaedri—prince—had given him the cold shoulder for not coming into town and helping him harass the bear’s female at the store.
It went against everything in Knox’s gut and he’d made sure he was scarce whenever they were making plans.
That wasn’t anything new. Raish had always been a bastard. Heart as cold as the ice that covered this world. After losing his mate to that bear, Raish had lost what was left of his mind. But there wasn’t a damn thing Knox could do about it.
He was second son. He wasn’t even good enough in his brother’s eyes to have as his second-in-command. No…Ryder had the honor of Beta of the pack.
Knox was just the spare. The one that would be the leader if something ever happened to Raish. The one that Raish just ignored because he’d tried to speak out against the feuding between the wolves and the other Tribes. It’d been the last time he tried to say anything against Raish.
Nothing ever happened that Raish didn’t want to happen. And he was too mean to die. So nothing would ever change. Even here on this new world. They would continue to kill each other.
But the bear might kill Raish. It would be an improvement for the pack.
Only if the pack listened to him about changing.
Knox sighed and leaned against the back wall of the center, waiting for Katherine. He didn’t like the front door. Too many people.
He heard her voice through the metal and brick. He smelled her too. Her scent was all over the building and around it. Her laugh rang out from the inside. The sound warmed his heart and made the corners of his mouth curve up into a smile. She made it worth shifting into a person. She was the only female besides his mother who’d made Knox smile. Ever. Or shift for that matter.
Wolves tended to stay in beast form more often than not. Even here, in this new world—Earth. The pack stayed in wolf form. Lived as animals. Hunted and ate as animals. At least what was left of the pack. The run-in with the Li’Vhram dragon a couple months ago should’ve been enough to warn off Raish from bothering the other Reyleans near this town.
The bastard just kept sticking his nose where it didn’t have to go. Wasn’t Raish tired of all the fighting? But that was like trying to tell fire not to burn.
This place was supposed to be a fresh start. A new world. That’s all Knox wanted. A chance with the woman Fate had showed him. He’d just have to be as lone wolf as possible and hope the others didn’t catch on.
At least he could speak better now after a few visits to town. He didn’t sound like his mate yet, but he was getting her language down better—English. The spell worked fast, but just because he could speak and understand, didn’t mean years and years of acting on animal instinct disappeared. He hadn’t had a conversation probably in over a decade.
It’d been embarrassing the first time. One-word answers. His human skin had been so uncomfortable. Everything had made him nervous and twitchy. Nothing looked right. Nothing smelled right.
Katherine had been so patient their first meeting, like nothing he did bothered her at all. She’d offered him food. All she’d done was sit in the kitchen and stare at him while he’d eaten a bowl of stew.
It was hard not to stare at her. She was beautiful. Kind. Generous. A great cook. He liked hunting and catching game as much as the next wolf, but her food made him want to be human more often. Well, that and other things.
The exit had been awkward. She’d asked where he lived, and he’d just shook his head. He didn’t have a home and he couldn’t explain that he lived like a wild animal.
But, he hadn’t been able to stay away. Just being near her was like a balm to his soul. He needed her. Wanted to touch her as much as he needed to breathe. She was everything and she didn’t have a clue.
She glowed for him, but due to her lack of reaction, he could only assume that she couldn’t see the soul call from her side. So he just looked like an ordinary guy to her. A guy lacking in social skills and void of answers to her flurry of questions.
Surprisingly when he’d come back the second time, she’d been all smiles and took him right back to his spot at the kitchen counter. She seemed to always be cooking or getting something ready for the community center.
The door swung open this afternoon and Knox was blessed with the sweet scent and vision of his mate. Her long brown curls were up in a twist at the back of her head, but a few had escaped and floated about her face.
“Hi, Knox!” She grinned and gestured inside. “I made something extra for you today. I was hoping you’d come by.”
“Thank you,” Knox said, stepping closer to her instead of through the opened door. He caught the bottom of her chin with a finger and lifted her face just a hair. Her skin was so smooth. Her lips a dusky pink. It took everything inside him not to lean in and kiss her right then. “You are beautiful, my shuarra.”
Dalmeck. Careless dog. Why had he let himself speak that word out loud? The kiss would’ve been better. Less to explain.
Katherine’s eyes widened. Her cheeks colored pleasantly. He wanted to bury his face in her hair and breathe in her scent. He wanted to taste her curved lush lips.
Then the curiosity overcame the blush. She was smart. And he had slipped up. “That’s not native. My dad speaks every dialect that exists around here. And I’m not terrible either. But I’ve never heard that word before. The inflection is so different. Are you ever going to tell me where you’re from Knox?”
“Very far.” Great. He was back to two-word answers.
Her grin widened. “You know. You said my. Does that mean these lunches this week and last have been counting as dates? Are you claiming me as your girlfriend?” She touched his arm, lightly tracing her fingers along the flannel shirt he’d swiped from someone’s laundry line outside of town.
“I have nothing to offer you in return for a claim.” And he wanted her as much more than a friend.
Knox dropped his hand from her face and stepped back. This was stupid. He was being unrealistic.
A royal among his people, but he had nothing here in Mystery.
In Alaska, he was a wolf. A wild animal. He lived in a den with other wolves up the side of a mountain.
He’d already changed so much, just to fit in more so he could visit Katherine without being gawked at. But he literally…had…nothing. She wasn’t a wolf. She couldn’t live on the mountain. Nor would she want to…
The pack had given him hell for abandoning his tosa. But after his first trip into town and realizing that people in this climate needed a bit more clothing than any of them had come prepared with. A tosa was light and tied around the waist. No more than a bit of cloth and leather. Perfect for fighting. He didn’t have shoes at first either. It’d taken a while to find something—steal something—that’d fit. He’d left two dead moose on the person’s doorstep as payment for the boots. Still, he felt shame for resorting to stealing.
Living in this world was complicated. They paid for things with bits of paper that didn’t mean anything. Land was owned. The pack had been chased. Shot at.
Staying a wolf had not only been their normal, it’d become necessary for survival. Knox would’ve liked to have talked to the other Tribespeople that came through the portal. They seemed to be getting on better. Blending in. Working side by side with the humans that populated this land.
She caught his hand, stopping him from moving further from her. Her eyes were soft. Gentle. “Don’t leave. I shouldn’t have teased. I’m sorry. I know we barely know each other. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off, not finishing the original thought. Instead, she tugged a little harder on his hand. “Come inside. I’ll make some food. Some of the retired guys are in the big room playing dominos. I know you had fun last time.”
“The game of tiles. With all the dots?” He’d played it once before with the visitors after a lunch with Katherine. It’d been nice to see her laugh and talk and carry on. She’d known some of the people in town since she was a child. They were proud of her. The old men talked about how she was always smiles and laughs and joy. ‘All Katherine has to do is step into a room to make it brighter.’ One of the men had told him. Katherine had turned a pretty shade of pink and smiled like she was embarrassed.
She shouldn’t be. The older man was right. Just listening to her chat about life. Seeing her smile. Seeing the joy she had and how hard she worked for her community had filled his dreams every night. She was so happy. So vibrant. The people in the town loved her. They loved this community center she ran.
He loved her.
More than anything and he couldn’t tell her.
Maybe one day. But today wasn’t the day. Today was just another day to bask in the glow of his mate. To feel her touch. Smell her scent. Today he would let her happiness fill his soul. He would take a little of her energy with him when he left and it would carry him through the long cold night alone on the mountain.
He let her think she was pulling him along. He would’ve followed her right off the side of a cliff. Anything she asked, he would do. Anything to see her happy.
She led him through the kitchen and into the large gathering room. Five older males sat at a large round table. The tiles of the game stretched across the table in a winding pattern.
“Knox, my boy! Good to see we didn’t scare you off last time.” One of the men shouted out and waved him over.
“You go sit with Carl. I’ll bring you out a sandwich.”
“A sandwich?” Knox cocked his head to the side, searching of the meaning of the word. It was food. Some type of bread and meat.
“Yeah. Ham or turkey?”
“Both?” Knox said, not sure what the right answer was. But meat was meat. He hadn’t met an animal he didn’t like the taste of yet.
She grinned. “Sure.”
Katherine trotted off, disappearing through the swinging kitchen door.
“Sit,” a gruff voice from behind him said.
Knox turned to the man and nodded, taking the offered chair. He’d met this particular man before—a pilot who visited Mystery regularly but lived in another town. Amazing to think this world had machines that not only could race across the land but fly through the air like a dragon…and carry people within them. Amazing.
“You’re sweet on our Katherine,” another male from across the table placed a domino and met Knox’s gaze with a protectiveness that his wolf admired. “What are your intentions?”
Knox glanced the door.
“She can’t hear us. That wall is made of concrete. You’re not the most talkative guy I’ve met. She said you won’t tell her where you’re from.”
Knox swallowed the guilt as it tried to crawl up his throat. “It’s not an easy story to tell, but I will tell her eventually.” It was the truth and the best he could do for now. He wanted to keep seeing her. He wanted to figure out how to tell her she was his mate. Most of all, he wanted to figure out a way to live in this world and claim her without his pack completely losing their minds.
“You’re not just trying to get close to take advantage of a sweet girl?” One of the other men across the table spoke up, his voice deep and gravelly.
Knox’s wolf took immediate offense. Mate. Never hurt mate. He pushed hard to keep the growl deep in his chest and the magick from shifting his eyes. He knew they would change from brown to gold if he got too riled.
“I would never harm Katherine.” He kept his voice low and steady. It was the complete truth. He would die for her if necessary, but there wasn’t a way to explain that to these men who had taken it upon themselves to watch out for her like fathers.
“She likes you,” Carl said, putting down a domino on the path in front of Knox. “There’s been an influx of new people to Mystery as of late. We just don’t want Katherine getting caught up in a mess.”
His heart sank. If he kept coming around, Katherine was very likely to get caught up in the mess that was his life. His tribe. His bastard of a brother. He couldn’t guarantee her safety. Not right now. Not with his brother constantly stirring them into a frenzy and out for revenge. They’d already torn up a store in town. What was next? Would they see him visiting Katherine and then would his brother’s irrational mind single her out too…to punish him for not participating.
He stood abruptly from the chair, making it tumble backward with a loud crash.
“Knox?” Carl asked, raising an eyebrow and frowning.
“I need to go.” Knox turned, headed to the kitchen. He would leave her…for now. He had to. As much as it would gut him to stop visiting. It was safer. She would be safer if he stayed away.
He pushed through the door and rounded the counter toward his mate. He wouldn’t see her again. At least not for a long time.
“Hey, I’m just about done. Do you—”
Knox slipped one arm around her waist and the other slipped into her silky hair and cupped the back of her head. He leaned down, meeting her lips with his, tasting her like he’d wanted to from the very first moment.
The moan that slipped from her throat made him hard. Made him reconsider his choice about disappearing. He pushed her up against counter. Kissing harder. Demanding. Devouring. He wanted everything. His wolf wanted everything.
He closed his eyes, hiding the animal from her. He swallowed the growl rumbling in his chest and just drank her in like he was dying of thirst and she was the only water left in the world. She would always be his water. No matter how far he ran or how long he stayed away.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured against her lips.
“Sorry for what?” She was breathless. Panting. Her fingers dug into his arms, holding him tight, as if she knew he was about to bolt.
“I have to go.” He pulled away and rushed for the door. He didn’t dare give her a chance to argue or chase him or anything. If she caught him, he’d never leave.
“Knox!” She called his name after him.
He was running across the back parking lot now. Don’t look back. Don’t stop. The wind whipped his face, cutting like a thousand knives. It was still better to stop it now, before she paid the price for what Fate had decided.
Her voice held pain. Pain he’d put there. He’d selfishly taken a kiss from her. He’d made it worse. Harder to leave. She’d been so soft in his arms. She’d wanted him back. But this was the only way to keep her safe. Raish destroyed everything he touched. And if Raish didn’t know about Katherine, he couldn’t destroy her.
Knox dove for the tree line and shifted as he left the asphalt. His wolf body leapt into the cover of the trees. His long white legs ate up the ground and carried him away from her. Away from his mate. Away from the only woman that could complete him. But still he ran.
Unwillingly back to the mountain.
Unwillingly back to the pack that would never give him the chance to be the leader they really needed.
Unwillingly back to a life that would never include more than the next fight or feud his brother deemed necessary.
Penny lounged in her favorite place in the whole cabin—the giant foam-filled beanbag the size of a couch. It was like a nest. She spent as much time there, curled under a pile of blankets, as humanly possible.
The enormous wood stove crackled in the corner, warming the room just enough to keep off the chill.
The kitchen smelled delicious. They had cookies and candies and caramel apples made. Everything was ready to load into the truck and take to the newly rebuilt MCC. The insurance had paid quickly, the town had come together, and she had personally pulled some strings with two Anchorage construction companies to make it happen as fast as it did.
The town needed its center. It wasn’t the same without a place to congregate and eat and play together. It had been a monumental achievement and tonight was the grand opening.
“Are you sure you want to go? We can stay. I can get Saul to take all of this for us,” Kann said, coming around the from the kitchen with bags packed with food.
“I’m fine. I’m huge, but I’m perfectly fine.”
Kann growled at her. He didn’t like it when she commented on her size. But he also wasn’t the one with a thirty-pound bowling ball attached to his stomach.
“I’m going to put these in the truck. I’ll be right back to get you out of the nest.”
“I’ll be here,” she said, giggling just a little. There was almost no way she could get out of the pillow on her own anymore. Honestly, she hadn’t been able to climb out of it on her own for several months now. But it was her favorite spot. It was so soft and warm, and nothing poked anywhere.
Penny relaxed down into the giant cushion of foam and stared up at the beamed ceiling. The logs were light blond and shiny and new. She loved looking at the designs and whorls in the wood grain. It still amazed her to this day that she’d gone from a solitary workaholic to being married and having a family with a man she absolutely could never get enough of.
The whole tribe was amazing. The family she’d never had before.
Which was good. Cause she was having four babies and was going to need a bit of help or she and Kann might go insane.
The door opened and closed, but Penny couldn’t see Kann from the angle she was at until his big sexy hulking form was looming over her.
“Ready, my love?”
“Nope, but let’s get this show on the road,” she said, her voice chirping like a happy little bird. She reached up a hand, but Kann just reached down and plucked her out of the beanbag like she was nothing more than a child.
He set her on her feet, letting her belly drag gently against his own. The babies kicked a few times and he chuckled. “They’re having a party in there,” he said, kissing along her jawline.
“You’re telling me. They’re not even here yet and I feel like a certifiable circus master with all the stunts being performed on top of my bladder.”
His mouth covered hers and she couldn’t help but sink into his embrace.
His hand cupped her cheek and that delicious purr of his started deep in his chest. She loved that sound and leaned into his chest, trying to get closer despite the large belly between them. The babies loved the sound too. They were all instantly still.
Her lips parted at the insistence of his. He traced along her lips again, before allowing his tongue to sweep in and dance with hers again.
The party was forgotten. At least for the moment.
His hands moved from her face, down her sides, until his large palms were centered over her ass. Then he lifted, lifting her from the ground and walked over to the kitchen counter and set her down, pushing up her long skirt and spreading her thighs until she could feel the evidence of his arousal.
Penny clung to his shoulders, loving the way he wanted her. Feeling his overwhelming adoration for her. His love. His loyalty. Everything came through their bond. It helped with the feeling-like-a-whale-pregnant-body and knowing he really did still find her very attractive. That and the very large erection pressing against her center.
His mouth was a wonderful distraction to the stress of the day. The cooking had been somewhat overwhelming until he’d gotten back from helping Saul tend to the rental cabins and helped her finish.
She would love to stay kissing him for hours, wrapped in his arms without a care in the world. But that wasn’t going to happen. If they didn’t show up to the MCC grand opening at a decent time, people would be sent to check on them. It was inevitable.
Kann lifted her shirt and proceeded to suck on her nipples through her bra.
“We need to go,” Penny said, her voice coming out in a high-pitched speak. “Kann.”
He snorted out his aggravation and released her breast from his mouth. “Very well. But is you think I’m not going to pick up where I left off as soon as we get home, you’re very wrong.”
Penny laughed and shook her head. “I promise. You can have all of me that you desire when we get home and I’m comfortably sprawled on our bed.
Kann straightened. Pulled her shirt back down over her skewed bra and gave her another swoon worthy kiss.
Penny swatted his arm but loved every second of the attention. “Help me down,” she said. No way was she attempting to hop down from the kitchen counter as big as she was right now. It was like trying to remain upright on a tightrope while strapped to a parade float.
In other words…very difficult.
Kann set her gently on her feet and they walked together outside into the cold winter wonderland. Everything was white and covered in puffy white snow like a scene from Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe before the wicked queen had been defeated. Even still, it was beautiful like it was right now. Still and serene. Like a picture on a post card.
The drive from their cabin to town was uneventful and pleasant. The truck rumbled noisily and by the time they got to the parking lot of the MCC, the sound of children screaming and laughing filled her ears.
“This Halloween is for dressing as something you are not?” Kann asked, watched several children dash around the snowy field just off to the side of the parking lot. “A ghost. A military person. And I don’t know what the full red bodysuit with a lightning bolt on his chest is supposed to be.”
“The Flash. It’s a superhero who can run really fast.”
Kann nodded and parked the truck near the back of the lot.
He helped her out first, then got all the bags out of the back seat to carry inside.
“Shuarra?” Kann’s voice rumbled from her side, his lion purred more and more the closer they got to delivery. He was always worried about every little thing.
“I’m fine,” she said, flashing him a quick smile. A twinge of something started in her lower back and she winced. The babies had been especially active today, it was mostly likely that one of them had a foot jabbing her in a nerve.
Kann set the bags down on the ground in the parking lot and stepped in front of her to block her moving away. “You had pain.” He put his hands on her shoulders and slipped them down her arms and all the way to her belly. “Are they kicking hard?”
“No, it’s fine. Just a twinge. It’s passed.”
He humphed out a very lion-sounding annoyed noise, but he didn’t continue to press her. With four babies kicking around for space there had been plenty of pinched nerves and discomfort through the pregnancy. Plus, she was ready for them to come.
“It’s going to be fine. Let’s go enjoy the party. Naomi brought her little ones to show off. Everyone is here. It’s Katherine’s big night. I don’t want to miss it.”
“Of course, love,” Kann said, his voice still laced with concern. “But if you feel unwell, you need to tell me.” He released her picked up the bags of sugared snacks.
“And you need to sit down and rest if you have pain.”
The sound of children laughing and squealing carried across the parking lot again from inside the building. Soon they would have that in their own home. Four of them.
Her stomach dropped to the bottom of her belly and clenched. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t know how to be a mom. She’d never been around babies before. Never even babysat a child.
“Inside. We are going inside,” she said, determination steeling her voice. She wasn’t going to be afraid. They’d said they were a community. A tribe. They would help her. The other women knew more about babies. Naomi already had three and seemed okay. The whole tribe had pitched in to help with feeding and holding and watching.
But if she had hers soon, that would add four more to the rotation. And what if they were all helping Naomi because she was the chief’s mate? What if she and Kann would be expected to take care of their own all alone?
Fear took up residence and started to squeeze in her chest like sharp claws wrapped around her lungs.
They entered the MCC. A wave of sugar filled the air. Children darted through the banquet tables. Booths were set up for giving away candy all along one side of the gym. Then long tables filled with food lined the other side of the gym.
“Are they here?” Penny asked, scanning the crowd.
Kann took a deep breath and nodded. “Most, yes.” He pointed to the food tables. Katherine and her mate Knox were filling the punch bowl. Then he pointed to a banquet table close to the back. Naomi was sitting, a baby in her arms. Col was next to her with the other two. Owen and Tara sat at the table with them.
“Kann, how is your mate?” Saul asked, appearing right in front of them.
“She is anxious. The babies are giving her aches again,” her mate said.
Saul took the bags from Kann’s hands. “I’ll take these. You make sure your mate gets settled.”
“Thank you,” Kann said, putting his forehead against Saul’s quickly before the older lion shifter turned to her.
“Good to see you Penny,” he said, his voice gravelly, but not harsh.
“You too, Saul.” She smiled. He was always bringing bags of groceries by their cabin so Kann didn’t have to take the time to go into town and be away from her. It was sweet. She shouldn’t worry so much about how they were going to make it with these babies, but she did. Her confidence never lasted long. There were too many unknowns. She had no experience. There weren’t any past events to look at in her memories. It was all just a giant blank slate.
She sucked in a breath and pasted on a smile for both the men’s benefit. She would fake it till she made it. Story of her life. And she’d done pretty good so far.
“Come, love, let’s get you a seat at a table. Then I’ll get you something to eat and drink.” He put his hand at the small of her back and most of her anxiety and fear dissipated with the small touch.
He was everything to her. He loved her independence. Her strength. But he also didn’t make her feel guilty for her doubt.
He tucked her close to his side as they walked through the sea of adults and children dressed in colorful costumes. She smiled, watching her mate’s fascination.
This was his first Halloween. And it was a strange holiday in her opinion, but the candy was fun. She loved the candy. She’d never really gotten into dressing up.
It didn’t look like anyone in the tribe had joined the festivities with a costume. But they were all laughing and eating and drinking at the table. Dawn and Tor were also sitting at the table with Owen and Tara and Col and Naomi.
The babies were being passed around. Col and Naomi’s arms were both empty and the new parents were eating some barbecue. The triplets were almost two months old now. They’d come early in August before their due date. It’d made Penny anxious for months waiting for the same thing to happen to her, but her babies seemed perfectly happy to hang out in her belly—permanently. She’d been due last week, according to the doctor up in Fairbanks.
The nursery in their cabin was decorated and ready. They’d done blues and greens and yellows and pinks. So far they still only knew the sex of two of the babies. A boy and a girl. During every appointment, at least two had always been hiding.
Kela, Naomi’s little girl let out a loud wail. Naomi put her fork down immediately and held out her arms.
“I’ve got her,” Tara said, shaking her head. “You eat. I promise.” Tara stood from the table and rocked the little bundle back and forth until the crying subsided completely.
“How did you know to do that?” Penny asked, watching Penny coo at the little pink bundle in her arms.
“Years of babysitting,” Tara said, meeting Penny’s gaze. “You’re going to be fine, Penny. We’re going to teach you all the things and help you just like we do for Naomi.”
“I know plenty, it’s just that they outnumber me,” Naomi said, her voice light and playful.
Kann guided Penny into a chair and kissed the top of her head. She readjusted a couple of times, trying to find the most comfortable angle in the metal folding chair. There really wasn’t one.
“I will make you a plate, shuarra.” He disappeared across the room to the row of tables. It was normal. He always served her. Every day, even if she cooked. Women ate first. Reylean tradition.
Penny watched him for a moment, before a sharp pain sliced through her side. She covered her mouth and winced.
It didn’t feel like a kick.
It didn’t feel like one of those Braxton Hicks contractions she’d been having randomly all week. This hurt. A lot.
“Penny?” Naomi said her name and leaned closer. “Are you feeling okay? You paled a little just now.”
Penny stared at the little pumpkin centerpiece on the table and breathed slowly.
“Oh, yeah. I feel like a personal swimming pool for these babies, but I’m good,” she said, faking her way until the pain passed.
“Penny,” Kann was back at her side, a soft growl rumbling in his chest. Damn mate link. She wasn’t going to be able to hide her pain from him.
“I’m fine. Let’s just enjoy the party.”
“You’re in pain,” Kann said, putting the plate filled with goodies and fruits down in front of her. It was everything she wanted to eat, but nothing looked appetizing. Not anymore.
“It’s nothing. It’s just a cramp. Everyone is here. It’s a party. I want to enjoy it. Please.” She turned and met her mate’s glittering gaze and breathed through another cramp that hurt enough to make her eyes water.
He sat down next to her and took her hand in his, rubbing his thumb over the top.
“It’s just Braxton Hicks contractions. I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” Penny said, taking in short sucking breaths between sentences.
“Honey, we aren’t worried about the food or the party. We’re worried about you,” Tara said. Everyone’s focus was on her now.
Penny shook her head. “I just need to walk it off. Kann would you just walk around the gym with me a minute?”
He stood and helped her up, then slid an arm under her arm around her back to support her. His bag hand wrapped all the way around her ribcage and his fingertips grazed the side of her very swollen breast. The girls had grown significantly in the last couple of weeks. None of her bras fit right anymore.
He walked her across the gym toward the games and then back along the line of buffet tables.
Col and Naomi and Tara and Owen were staring from their table. Silent. Watching.
The rest of the crowd was oblivious to her discomfort.
It was so strange.
Another contraction squeezed and she shut her eyes and breathed, trying not to whimper out loud.
Without Kann supporting her, she would’ve gone to her knees on that one.
“Penny, you are not well,” Kann said, his voice a commanding growl. “We’re going home and I’m calling Connie.” He swept his other arm beneath her legs and cradled her against his chest.
Katherine and Ava materialized from the crowd along with Knox and Ryder right behind them.
“What’s wrong?” Katherine asked, sniffing the air.
“The babies are coming,” Kann said, cutting her off.
Katherine and Ava both nodded.
“Her water just broke, too,” Ava said.
“I am not doing this here,” Penny said, her voice coming out in a snarl. “You get me home, do you hear me?” She grabbed Kann’s arm and squeezed hard, breathing through an even worse contraction.
Katherine shook her head. “We can’t get you home, you don’t have time. That’s twenty minutes in the car in bad weather. We can take you to my place though.”
“I’ll call Connie and tell her to head to your house,” Ava said, disappearing from Penny’s view.
Kann walked quickly along the bare wall toward the front door of the gym. They hurried through the entry and then outside into the dark.
Sunset had been close to two hours ago and the sky was black and filled with stars. Penny looked up at the splash of color from the Milky Way and tried not to think about the next contraction. She was safe in Kann’s arms. She was going to be okay. She wasn’t going to deliver her babies in the middle of a halloween town event.
Kann put her gently into the front seat and buckled her in. “How are you, love?”
She nodded, gritting her teeth through the next contraction. “Hurry.”
He ran to the other side and started the truck. Katherine vehicle was right ahead of them. She lived less than two miles from the MCC and it seemed like they were in her driveway by the time she’d finished breathing her way through a contraction.
Kann had her inside Katherine’s house before another contraction finished. He waited for Katherine to clear and prep the bed, then laid Penny in the center.
The sound of tires crunching gravel made him look away for just a second toward the window in the bedroom.
“What?” Penny asked.
“It’s Connie,” Katherine said, not missing a beat. “I know that engine anywhere.”
Relief poured through Penny’s mind like a cool drink on a hot summer day. Connie was here. They’d prepped for this.
They hadn’t prepped for this at Katherine’s house, but mostly everything would be the same. By the time labor hit, there wouldn’t be time to get to Fairbanks and that’s exactly what’d happened. And currently there wasn’t a doctor in Mystery.
Connie charged into the room and put two large red bags on the floor.
“Ryder you and Kann move Penny to stand at the foot of the bed. Katherine find clean towels.”
No one moved.
“Now!” Connie said, putting an authoritative snap in her voice. Everyone jumped into motion again.
“Hey, sweetie, how are you feeling?”
Penny breathed through a sharp pain. She moaned when the guys moved her. Everything hurt. Kann was apologizing and telling her how good she was doing. How brave she was.
She didn’t feel brave. She felt terrified. She felt overwhelmed and lost.
“I can’t do this,” she whimpered.
Connie took both of Penny’s hands in hers and put them on the foot board of Katherine’s bed. “Yes, you can. You’re gonna be great. These babies are gonna be amazing and tomorrow you won’t remember a thing. Okay?”
Penny nodded, but didn’t believe her.
“Ryder, you wait in the hallway. Kann you rub Penny’s back gently.”
Katherine reappeared with an armful of folded blue towels.
“I’m not ready,” Penny panted, trying to breath through another contraction. The pain was so intense. It was like a vice had been placed around her belly and someone was twisting a handle tighter and tighter and tighter.
She screamed and would’ve fallen to her knees if Kann hadn’t been right there and supported her.
“You help her stay upright. There’s too many babies, if we try to do this without gravity helping out, she’s going to get exhausted too fast.” Connie touched Penny’s leg. “I’m gonna take your skirt off, hon. It’s time for these babies to come.”
“How do you know?” Penny asked.
“Cause I can feel the head crowning for the first baby. You push as soon as the next one comes, got it?” Connie said, putting an extra dose of command in her tone. “Penny?”
“Yes, got it,” Penny said, nodding and taking a deep breath before the next onslaught.
“The babies won’t fall out?” Kann asked and Penny snort laughed. It only it was going to be that easy.
Connie chuckled. “No Kann, they aren’t going to fall out.”
The twisting vice turned again and Penny screamed. She had to push. It was time. The head was showing. The baby needed to get out. Now.
She clung to the footboard, her knuckles white, panting for breath. The pain blossomed into a bright wave of that made her fell lightheaded, then the pressure released.
“A girl, Penny. Good job,” Connie said, her voice filled with praise and excitement.
“Penny, love, we have a daughter,” Kann’s voice crooned into her ear. “She’s beautiful.”
Tears blurred Penny’s vision. They poured down her cheeks. She hiccuped through a sob and managed to turn just enough to look down at Connie handing off a tiny bundle wrapped in a blue towel.
A few seconds later the baby wailed and more tears ran down Penny’s face.
The tightness was already returning to her belly. The invisible hand was twisting ht bear and squeezing. She moaned and leaned forward again over the footboard. So much for being comfortable on the bed.
Although she was quite sure no part of labor, no matter where she was would be comfortable. The pain pried another scream from Penny’s lungs and she felt Kann’s hands between her legs this time instead of Connie’s smaller ones.
“We can do this, love. Connie is checking on the first little one. You’re doing so well. I can see the head of the next one,” Kann said. “You’re going to be such an amazing mother to our children.”
“I just need them out of me,” Penny said, her voice rising into growled shout. She grit her teeth and pushed with the next contraction.
It wasn’t enough.
The pressure was still so much. Almost too much. She panted and sucked air as the contraction faded down and belly loosened.
A few seconds reprieve.
That’s all she would get.
The next contraction came like a hammer and she opened her mouth and yelled.
“Push, Penny, you can do it,” Connie said.
The pressure released and another tiny wail filled date bedroom, even louder than the first.
“It’s a boy,” Kann said, his tone filled with awe. “We have a son.”
The process repeated again for the third.
Then pain started to blend into everything. Penny couldn’t really hear the others talking around her. Everything was a blur.
A few words stuck out.
Arms were on her body and she had the sensation she was moving.
Penny tried to speak, but the words didn’t sound right. “W-wha-t-s wr-ong?” She tried again, but everything was so slow. Her tongue felt thick and heavy. She was so tired.
People were moving around her, but she was lying on the bed now. A white ceiling glared down at her. Connie was crouched between her upraised knees.
A contraction came and everything tightened again, but the pain was different this time.
The pressure was wrong.
In the wrong place.
* * *
Kann knelt between Penny’s legs. There wasn’t another head showing. Nothing was showing. He didn’t know what to do and stress was coming off of Connie in waves so strong he could smell it.
His two sons and one daughter were quiet now. Knox and Katherine were holding them.
Penny was the focus. The last baby. Something was wrong.
Connie was trained. She should know what to do.
In Reylea there were only magics-benders. When people got ill, they traveled to a temple to be healed.
Here people were on thither own with only doctors and medicine to help them.
What he wouldn’t give for a magick-bender right now.
Penny was so pale. The pinkness had fled from her face and her usual brightness had faded. Her skin was grey and flat. Sweat beaded on her forehead, running in rivulets down her temples.
He could feel her pain and her exhaustion through their bond.
“Fight. Shuarra. You are strong. Draw strength from me through our bond. Please, Penny,” he said, desperation flaring in his chest like a match struck on dry kindling.
He looked again between Penny’s legs, hoping ht crown of his last child’s head would show.
More whimpers from his wife. Her heart was slower than it had been earlier. The heart beat of the unborn baby was slowing as well. He was losing them.
A soft rattle started low in his chest and then grew to a loud purr and then a roar, exploding from his throat and rattling the windows of the bedroom. His lion was as close to the surface as possible without shifting his form.
Penny’s eyes flew open.
He pushed on their connection.
Her heart rate increased a little. The baby’s was still slowing.
“Fight, Penny,” he ordered.
“Move over,” Connie said, shoving against Kann’s shoulder. She crawled up on the bed and shoved against him with her shoulder.
He snarled, but did as she asked. Inching to the side to give Connie room. The EMT ignored his threat.
She patted Penny’s leg and drew her attention away from him.
“Hey there, you are doing great. We are almost done. I need to help your last little one. But this is gonna hurt.” She looked at Kann. “Do not bite me.”
He grit his teeth.
“She’s gonna scream. Do you hear me, Kann?” Connie said, her gaze cold and hard and serious.
Connie scooted around to Penny’s side and put her hands on her rounded belly. She felt around a few seconds. “She’s upside down. I’m gonna push now. This is going to hurt, but I need you to do nothing. Stay as relaxed as possible. Don’t push. Don’t bear down.”
Penny panted and whimpered something he couldn’t understand.
Then Connie put her hands on his mate’s belly and pushed until Penny screamed.
It took everything inside him not to rip Connie away and toss her across the room. His mate was hurting. Connie was hurting her. The pain was like a thousand knives all stabbing him at once.
“Good girl, breathe through the contraction. Yes. That’s it. Don’t push. I know it’s hard.”
A few seconds passed with Connie continuing to encourage Penny.
Kann hadn’t even realized his hands were in fists. Katherine put a hand on his arm. He glanced over at the woman holding his daughter, grateful for the gesture, though it did nothing to diminish his worry.
“We are almost there. The baby moved a lot that time, but not all the way. Ready?”
Penny shook her head, but Connie leaned forward and prodded around on her belly again anyway. “I know it’s bad, sweetie, but we have to get this baby out. For both of you,” she said, but this time looked over her shoulder at Kann.
It was a warning. She was telling him it was as bad as he felt it was.
“I can hear them both,” he whispered. The baby was hanging on, but both their heartbeats were slow.
Connie nodded and turned back to Penny. “Breathe,” she ordered. Then she pushed, so much harder than Kann imagined was safe.
Penny screamed again. The bloodcurdling painful scream of someone being tortured. It made his blood run like ice inside him. It wasn’t fair. He couldn’t help her. He was just a spectator hoping for the best outcome—that his mate and child survived.
“It’s moving. There you go! Lean into that next contraction, mama. I know you’re tired. But reach deep and find me some more. Just a little more, hon,” Connie said, continuing to encourage and root her forward.
“Kann, grab her knees and push them back against her belly, but not too hard. Just help give her more leverage. I’m going to climb behind her. So you watch for that baby to crown. Let me know as soon as you see it.”
“Yes,” he said, scooting over just a bit so he was back between his mate’s legs. He gripped both her shins and pushed forward against her body, folding her legs in half and pushing back against her hips.
Connie crawled behind Penny on the pillows and pushed her forward as he pushed backward. “Next contraction you push, you hear me?”
Penny was quiet. Her breathing was shallow. Her eyes weren’t really focusing.
“Shuarra, look at me,” he ordered, pushing through their link.
They connected a second later. He saw the pain. He felt the fear, but also the overwhelming determination that she could do this.
And then she pushed. And screamed. And pushed again.
“I see the head. You’re almost there, love,” he said, his tone eager and excited. They were so close. She was so close. “Please, Penny.”
She bore down again, delivering another baby girl into his hands.
Tears wet his cheeks as he wrapped the baby in a towel handed to him by Katherine. The sweet precious perfect little girl, with a button nose just like her mama and dark curls all over her head.
She opened her mouth nd cried, announcing to the world with her strong lungs that she had arrived.
“I need you to switch with me,” Connie said, crawling out from behind Penny’s back. “Do you have another towel?”
Katherine produced another immediately.
Kann moved to sit near Penny’s head with thee baby in one arm, he pulled her forward and slipped his thigh behind his mate, moving her just a few inches so that she was leaning against him.
She was cool to the touch. Her eyes were closed. Exhaustion had beaten her and she was on the edge of sleep. The baby in his arms cooed softly and Penny’s eyes fluttered open for just a second. Her mouth curved into a small smile.
“Are they okay?”
“The babies are perfect, love,” he said, putting the little girl in his arms down against Penny’s chest while Connie attended to Penny and cut baby number four’s placenta. Then wrapped the towel back tightly around the red sticky newborn.
“We need to wash them. Warm water and a soft washcloth. I know you don’t have clothes here for them.”
Connie put a stethoscope to Penny’s chest. “She’s tired, but she’s doing well,” she said, meting Kann’s gaze. “But I suppose you could hear that? Her color is starting to come back too.”
He nodded. “Thank you. I don’t know what we would’ve done without you.
“I’ll get water prepped in the kitchen so we can bathe them,” said Katherine. “And the others are all in the living room and milling about on the porch waiting for news. I can hear them.”
“I’ve been informed that baby clothes have been brought from your house. Tara has them,” Knox said, his voice echoing from the doorway where he stood with Kann’s two sons in his arms. “Congrats on becoming a father, Kann.”
His chest tightened. A fewer he’d never experienced slid down his spine. He was a dad. He was responsible for children. He loved them. As much as he loved their mother. They’d only been born for a few minutes.
It was a lot to absorb.
Each little heartbeat was unique. Each baby had a slightly different scent.
Connie returned with baby number one and traded for baby number two from Knox’s arms.
Knox brought the freshly washed and dressed little boy to the bedside and laid him in Penny’s arms.
A few minutes later they had all four of them dressed and wrapped and nestled tightly in their arms.
Penny was fading fast. She needed sleep.
“Why don’t you and Knox take the babies out to see everyone for just a few minutes while Katherine and I help Penny get cleaned up and back in bed.” Connie met Penny’s gaze. “Would you like that, hon?”
“Yes, please. But bring them back as soon as I’m settled. Just until I fall asleep.”
“Oh, of course,” Katherine said, handing a baby to Knox.
Kann handed off the two girls to Connie instead of following her directions.
“You take the babies. I will attend to my mate.”
Connie and Katherine and Knox left quickly, taking all four bundled babies with them.
“Don’t you want to—”
He put a finger against Penny’s lips and shook his head. “You are my soul mate, the mother of my children, my everything. I will always take care of you first.” He slipped an arm beneath her legs and his other arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Then lifted and carried her into the bathroom.
“Can you stand, shuarra?”
“Yes, I think so,” she said. “If you help me.”
“Always.” He put her down slowly, waiting until she felt steady. Then left her leaning against he wall and flipped on the shower. Once the water was steaming, he lifted her into the curtainless-clawfoot tub, not caring how much splashed onto himself.
He pulled off the shirt she’d been wearing. Unlatched her bra and pulled that free from her body as well.
She bent her head and let the water sluice over her skin.
He watched her with awe. What she’d just done. The strength it had taken to deliver four babies.
“You made me a father today. I can’t tell you how proud I am. How grateful I am that you accepted me. That you love me,” he said, his voice breaking on the last few words. “You are the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. I will forever be blessed to have you in my life.”
Tears rolled down Penny’s cheeks.
“I’m the lucky one, Kann. You saved me. You showed me what it meant to truly be loved. What it meant to have a family. A tribe.”
He pulled her closer and kissed her hard, claiming her mouth. Tasting her sweetness. Stroking the inside of her mouth until she moaned into his. Until her body listed toward his and she leaned against his chest.
She returned the kiss, devouring him as if she were just as hungry for the connection as he was.
“I love you, shuarra. With every breath of my body,” he said, puling back. “I will care for you and these children of ours until my very last day.”
“I love you, too, Kann. More than I can ever put into words.”
“I can feel it.”
Her body shuddered against his just enough to remind him how tired she was. He was making her stand longer than necessary.
“Let me help you. Then back to bed.”
She closed her eyes and bowed her head again, letting the water run over her face.
He moved quickly and gently, washing her clean, then drying her tender and exhausted body. Then he wrapped her in a night gown provided by Tara from their own home. The woman had thought to grab that too, in addition to baby clothes.
Kann carried her back to the bedroom nd stood her next to the bed, removing the dirty sheets and the plastic shower curtain Katherine had used in place of the waterproof sheets they’d purchased to be prepared for a home birth.
He put the wrapped up bundle near the door, so someone could take it. Then he returned to her side and helped her climb into the bed. He pulled up the blankets and put extra pillows behind her head. Before he had finished, her eyes were closed and her breathing steady.
Completely and utterly asleep.
He smiled and bent, putting a soft kiss on her forehead. Then left the room to find his children.
The living room was alive with cooing and exclamations of wonder.
Congratulations were said. Everyone clamored to be the first to tell him how beautiful and strong his babies were. They all asked how Penny was doing. Several of the women moved to go into the bedroom, but he stopped them. His mate needed to rest. Needed the quiet.
He gathered up his children into his arms, until he had all four. “You are all my family, and I appreciate the support so much more than I can say in this moment. Penny is exhausted though and we just…” He stared at his friends. His family.
Everyone had come. Tor and his mate Dawn. Owen and Tara. Ava and Ryder. Col and Naomi. Even Saul had shown up. He was standing over in the corner of the room by himself, but he was here. And his eyes were bright with pride.
The older lion shifter mouthed, “Congratulations.”
Kann nodded his thanks and then looked to their chief, hoping he would see what was needed.
Col met his gaze and acknowledged Kann’s unspoken request.
“We will all leave for today and will check back on you tomorrow in shifts. Tara and Dawn can bring food by so that Knox and Katherine will have plenty to feed you until you and Penny feel comfortable moving back to your home.”
Kann breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said. He left the room with the babies in his arms, back into the bedroom.
He shut the door softly and walked to the side of the bed. She was beautiful. Peaceful. His heart had been made whole by her love. He couldn’t imagine his life without her in it. Fate had worked hard to make sure he found her. His sweet strong female.
She had chosen him. Trusted him when she hadn’t know how to trust anyone.
Now she’d given him young. And they were perfect and there was this different kind of love swelling in his chest that made him want to cry. Something he rarely did. He looked down on each of his children’s faces and tears did fall, burning paths of surprise down his cheeks.
He didn’t know how to explain it. Except that these little bundles of life were completely dependent on him. They couldn’t do anything. They needed him. They were part of him and part of his mate. The best parts made into complete new completely unique people.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” Penny spoke, her voice so soft.
Kann’s gaze felt to meet hers. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” he said.
She flashed him a bright smile, one that he’d come to depend on seeing every single day. “I love you,” she said, reaching up an arm toward one of the babies.
“I love you too, shuarra, with everything that I am.”
He slipped one of the little girls from his arms down into hers. The little one opened her mouth and wailed just a bit. “She’s hungry.”
Penny smiled and pulled down her dress and laid the baby at her breast. The newborn latched on quickly and the sounds of her greedily drinking made Kann laugh.
“She will make the others jealous if she takes all the milk.”
“Oh, there’s plenty. My boobs are huge,” Penny said, join gin with her chuckle as she stroked her daughter’s cheek. “How are the others?” She looked up, expectantly. “Was everyone out there? I’m not really ready for an onslaught of visitors. I thought I might, but—”
“It’s just us and Katherine and Knox, love. Col sent everyone else home.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned toward her so she could see the faces of the other three babies. She touched them and tears streamed down her face.
Tears he recognized because he’d just had the same feelings.
“They are perfect.”
“They are,” he said, wholeheartedly agreeing.
* * *
Thank you for loving Mystery, Alaska and it’s Tribe! I hope you enjoyed Kann and Penny’s bonus story!
Download your complimentary copy of To Be Fated For A Mate if you haven’t yet!
Download your complimentary copy of To Be Kindred To A Witch if you haven’t yet!