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FATED MATES – Tonya & Aaron

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How it all started…FATED MATES

Tonya and Aaron’s love story…

 

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July, 1993

Tonya Willows was officially homeless. Well, at least until she figured out what to do now that her grandmother’s estate had been sold. The lawyer said it would take a week or two before everything was settled and she had access to the trust.

She stared down from the balcony of her best friend’s apartment in New Orleans. The sun was setting on the party starting down in the quarter. Soon the streets would be filled with shouting and laughing and drinking. It didn’t have to be Mardi Gras for there to be a party. New Orleans in the quarter was a party every night of the week.

The sound of a weeping sax carried all the way from the end of the street and brought a tear to her eye. The rich tones reminded her of her grandparents. Her grandfather used to play the saxophone for her grandmother every night. They’d loved each other so much. Loved her too. She’d been with them since she was twelve months old when her parents had been killed during a mugging. They’d gone out one night for a date…and never came back.

The sun was setting, leaving the sky a multitude of reds and oranges that would swiftly turn purple. Her life was about to change too, at least it felt like it. She’d finished school, was looking for a job at the local hospital. She’d also put in her resume at a few of the local nursing homes. The school said she’d have a job as a respiratory therapist lined up by the end of the month.

So many changes.

“Are you gonna stay inside and mope again?” Brit called from the kitchen. “I’m ready to get out tonight, girl. You need to get out and loosen up a bit. I’ll be the designated wing girl tonight. You get drunk and enjoy yourself.” Her friend joined her on the balcony and hip bumped her. Tonya turned to her friend and smiled.

“It’s weird not having anything to do. No one to take care of. I never realized how much I needed that in my life until…”

“Hey,” Brit cooed, wrapping her arms around Tonya’s shoulders. “That’s why you’re a therapist or whatever. So you can take care of people all day long. And plus, the second you find a man who isn’t a douchenozzle, you’ll be playing nurse in no time.”

“Please don’t bring up Bob.” Tonya shuddered. “He was the longest mistake I’ve ever made.”

Brit snorted. “You were only with him three weeks. That’s a record.”

“I know. That’s why he was the longest mistake.” Tonya leaned her hip against the wrought iron railing of the balcony and pulled in a deep breath. The sounds of the city were louder here. Her grandparents house had been in a garden district, quieter, away from the bustle. She would miss that. But it was time to move forward and figure out where she belonged for real.

“I’m telling you, when you find the right guy it’s just gonna be like BAM. You’ll never be able to let go. Just like me and Tanner.”

Tonya nodded, appeasing her friend. Brit’s boyfriend Tanner had been around since high school. She was pretty sure the two of them would end up married within the next year or so, and popping out babies a year after that. They were so in love it was sickening sometimes. Not that she wasn’t happy for her friend, it was just hard when there didn’t seem to be a decent guy left in the city for Tonya.

Still, she wasn’t in a hurry. She’d just turned twenty. Just graduated. Didn’t have a job or a place of her own yet. She was crashing on her best friend’s couch for heaven’s sake. The last thing she needed right now was a man.

“Go get dressed. We’re going out tonight.” Brit said before twirling in a circle and heading back inside the apartment. “I gotta put on some make up and do my hair. You have thirty minutes.”

“Brit,” Tonya said, her voice dropping low.

“Nope, no excuses.” Brit stopped in the open set of French doors. “You’re going out tonight. I’m not watching another Sandra Bullock movie until I see you get drunk. And not just oh, I’m gonna be tired in the morning drunk, I want to have to make you a bloody mary and hear you moan from the pain in the morning drunk.”

“That sounds horrible when you describe it that way? Why would anyone ever agree to that?”

“I’ll watch movies with you for the rest of the week.”

“If I go out tonight and get drunk?” Tonya growled.

“Yep, that’s the deal.”

“I’ll watch them by myself.”

Brit shook her head emphatically. “Nope. I’ll be watching Food Network.”

“Ugh. No,” Tonya said, her tone more of a whine now. “Why are you doing this to me.”

“I’m helping you. Just watch. You’ll thank me for this later.” Brit bounded off into the apartment and disappeared down the hall to her bedroom.

Tonya grimaced. This was not going to be fun. She didn’t want to be out in the mess, fending off guys who wanted a quick BJ or a flash of her boobs. She loved the city. Adored living in New Orleans, but this part of it wasn’t her scene. Still, she was willing to do what Brit asked to avoid being forced to watch endless hours of Chopped and Iron Chef.

True to her word, Brit emerged from her bedroom thirty minutes later. Tonya had applied the barest minimum—eye liner, mascara, and some lip gloss. They stepped outside Brit’s apartment building into a sea of people and the middle of a make shift parade.

“You ready?” Brit shouted over the noise.

“No,” Tonya yelled back.

Brit laughed, yanked on her hand and they started toward the Lucky Saloon, Brit’s favorite haunt. Tonya was sure it would only be the first stop on a long tour tonight.

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Twenty-three year-old Aaron VonBrandt threw open the side door to Lucky’s in the French Quarter and inhaled the heady scent of pheromones, perfume, and hard alcohol. Mostly pheromones.

“I am getting laid tonight,” he growled to the two men who flanked him, like sexual superheroes. He leaned back like an old Southern pastor on the pulpit and called out, “We are all getting laid tonight!”

“Oh jeez,” said his friend George Laughton, who had driven them all the way from Somewhere, Texas in six hours. He had a lead foot and never got stopped by cops. It was uncanny.

“I told you we should have left him at home,” said Toby VonBrandt, Aaron’s very blond cousin, under his breath. Still single at thirty-three, Toby was the youngest of Aaron’s father’s generation, and the closest to his own age. Being the oldest was annoying when it came to partying. He really only had Toby to understand what he was going through.

Aaron put his hands on his hips. “We are champions of companionship. The purveyors of passion. Here to save women from their loneliness, their empty beds, and their vibrators. We are heroes, boys.”

Both of his friends groaned.

“No, no,” he continued. “I am like Superman in here.”

“Whatever,” George said with a laugh.

The three friends were pushed inside the thundering club by a big, brawny bodyguard, and Aaron sauntered toward the bar, taking in the lay of the land. He was a damned hero. Some girl was going to have the night of her life, climbing up on a wolf like this. It was a public service.

He and George and Toby had been all over the bayou, partying with all the local talent, every weekend since Aaron had graduated from college. During the week, he was Aaron VonBrandt, stuffy and uptight vice president at VonBrandt Energy. But on the weekend, he was a guy.

Just a guy who needed a girl for one night.

Aaron landed at a table right in the middle of all the crazy, and waited for his two wingmen to wade through the crowd. Lucky’s was in full force. There were hotties everywhere. He gazed around, looking for women who would meet his eyes.

He wasn’t much for shy girls. Needed the challenge.

“How about her?” asked Toby, nodding toward the bar, at a minx in a slinky dress with long, long, looooooong black hair.

“Damn, her hair is longer than her hem,” George said with a note of reverence. “That takes work.”

“Too easy.” Aaron waved his hand. “She’s practically holding court. No drink, backless and practically frontless dress. That’s like a black widow right there.”

George jumped up from his chair. “I’ll take her.”

“She’ll eat you alive, brother,” Aaron tried to warn him, but George was already gone. He had such a thing for long hair. He couldn’t see the temptress attached to it. She wasn’t there for men. She was there to get free drinks. But George was a good guy. Of the three of them, he’d be the happiest going to the hotel alone at the end of the night.

That was why he was the wingman and the driver.

“He’s gotta get over that hair thing,” Toby said, leaning over the table and looking around for a waitress. He was always looking for a waitress. In fact, more often than not, Toby joked and drank all night and took home a waitress when she got off shift. Or a bartender. He wasn’t interested in the fast close. Toby played a long game.

“He’ll be fine.” Aaron kept scanning, making eye contact with a couple of hotties who immediately looked away, then looked back to see if he was still watching. That coy thing… not tonight.

He wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for, but they weren’t stroking whatever it was he was in search of. Blonde? Brunette? Auburn? Red? Purple? Blue? Hell. New Orleans was crazy.

“Your dad stop calling you?” Toby asked, closer to Aaron’s ear than he’d expected, and his stomach dropped.

“No.”

“When did he get on the plane for LA?”

A tight frustration pulled through Aaron’s chest, dampening his ability to smile for about half a second. The girl who met his eyes at that moment held his gaze and didn’t look away. Something clicked inside him and he focused in on her.

She had bright blue eyes and she had been smiling, until he focused on her. Her head tilted to one side, and she still didn’t look away, didn’t blink, didn’t smile.

“When did he get on the plane, Aaron?” Toby repeated.

But Aaron couldn’t look away from the girl. He realized that his heartbeat had accelerated, with his attraction to the beautiful, dark-haired, frost-eyed beauty. One piece of her hair had fluttered over her eyes, and she still didn’t break contact.

He wanted to brush the hair away.

“Aaron.” Toby snapped his fingers. “Your dad. The plane.”

But the girl was still looking when Aaron checked back, after glaring at Toby. Her lips had dropped open and one of her friends was also trying to get her attention. There was just something about her…

“Just after we hit Baton Rouge,” he answered. “I’m sure he’ll call again after he gets to LA. He thinks I’ll answer.”

“You’re not gonna answer?”

“Nope.”

The waitress finally stopped at their table and Aaron ordered a bottle of Jim Beam. He stared at the blue-eyed beauty across the room and nodded toward her. “What do you think she’s drinking tonight?”

The waitress smirked. “You’re not the first one to ask. She’s sent back drinks from three men, so don’t press your luck, honey.”

“Give me three highballs, then,” Aaron said. “Our friend is about to get shut down by the black widow and I don’t want him to miss his bourbon.”

She turned on her heel, rolling her eyes. She’d probably seen it all. But Aaron VonBrandt wasn’t one of the normals. He didn’t do anything small.

“Hey, honey, come back here,” he said to the waitress, and she stopped, clearing glasses off the next table. “You got any Macallan?”

The look she gave him would have melted sap off the petrified forest. “In this bar? Honey, please. Johnnie Walker is the toppest of our top shelf.”

“Then send her a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Best you’ve got.”

“Only if you pay cash, Mr. Bigshot. I ain’t gettin’ stiffed again on bottles of high end booze. They come out of my paycheck, y’know.” She sidled up to the table, holding a tray of used glasses and beer bottles on her hip.

Aaron threw a wad of cash onto the tray. “I’m happy to oblige.”

“Johnnie Walker it is.” And she was off.

“You’re not gonna tell me about your dad, are you?” Toby said, eyeing the waitress’s swinging hips as she walked away. He really did have a type.

“Not right now, Toby. I’m on the prowl.” He growled, like a human would growl, but from somewhere deep down inside, the wolf came up. It surprised him. The noise rattled in his chest, deep and rumbly, and the girl’s brows went up, like she’d heard it.

He checked the air around her, quickly, shaking off the haze of lust, but there was no wolf signature around her. She was just a plain old human.

A hot, sexy, siren of a human. But not a wolf.

Check.

Wolves were complicated and then there was the whole are-we-mates thing. It was a disaster. Like a weird dating game everyone knew you were playing. Are you my mate? Are you my mate? Are you my mate? It was worse than having an old matchmaker following you around spitting on the ground and telling you to stop sowing your oats.

He had a mom to do that just fine.

“You’d better watch it, Aaron, or you’re going to prowl your way into big trouble one of these days. You choose too fast,” Toby warned, sitting back as the waitress arrived with their glasses and the big bottle of Jim Beam. Not black label, but it would do in a pinch.

Plus, he was hoping the hottie would invite him and Toby over to her table, and he could finish off hers, too. He was gonna have a lot of alcohol—which he would need to calm the wolf—and do some dancing, and then be some girl’s hero.

Because he was Aaron VonBrandt, dammit. He deserved a night of forgetting all his responsibilities and all his family drama. He deserved to lose himself in a beautiful girl and be the man she’d always dreamed about and give her the best sex of her life.

And be immortalized in perfection forever. Only in her memory.

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Tonya stared at the floor. Her heart was racing. Her mouth was dry. His eyes had held her transfixed like magick. She could’ve sworn they even sparkled with gold. Damn. She’d promised herself she would not succumb to the alcohol. She’d promised herself that she wasn’t going to go home with a random guy. But this one…with the bad boy brown hair and hungry glance that’d made her insides clench…this one might succeed where the others of the night had failed.

A waitress stopped at their table with a bottle of Johnny Walker and some extra glasses. “Compliments of the guy over there.”

Tonya followed the line of sight from the waitresses’ hand to the man she’d been unable to look back at since she’d dropped his gaze. Now he had her again. Her skin felt hot. Prickly.

“You keeping this one?” Brit asked, obvious shock lacing her high-timbred voice. She had two drinks in her hand she’d procured from the bartender.

The waitress had long since disappeared by the time Brit returned. Tonya finally broke from the mystery man’s watchful eyes. What the damn hell is wrong with me?

“I…yes.” As soon as the words left her mouth she knew they had been a mistake.

Brit squealed like a sorority girl who’d just won a popularity contest. “I’m gonna go hang just over there at the bar while you chat him up. And damn girl, he is fine,” she said.

Tonya glared up at her friend. “How do you even know which dude sent the bottle?”

“Um, really, Tonya? He’s staring at you like he wants to eat you. Literally and figuratively.” She chuckled and disappeared through the crowd of people again, leaving Tonya at the mercy of her exploding ovaries and roller-coasting hormones. What was so special about this guy? She never let cute guys take advantage of her like this. Nobody affected her like this guy was doing and he hadn’t even spoken to her yet. Just his presence in a bar full of people was putting all kinds of naughty things into her mind.

She needed a drink. A hard drink. Not the fufu sugary rum drink Brit had deposited on the table for her to consume. Tonya snapped the seal on the whiskey gift and poured a finger in one of the provided highball glasses. The Johnny slid down her throat with a slight burn and added some courage to her dwindling stock.

The guy was moving. Toward her. He was leaving his buddy and was actually going to talk to her. Her chest tightened. Breathing was difficult. Her body started to thrum like she’d been in bed with a guy giving her foreplay for the past hour. Not good.

Instead of excusing herself from what was about to be her downfall, she poured another finger into her glass and then poured some into another of the highballs. He sidled up to the table, picking up the whiskey and downing it before meeting her gaze one more time. She sipped hers this time. She needed to slow down. Keep what wits she had left. Not that her body cared one wee bit about her plan to stay in control. Her body wanted nothing more than this man. His mouth. His hands. Everything. All of it. Right now.

She didn’t even know his name.

“I’m Aaron,” he said, putting his now-empty glass down on the table.

Problem solved. Her brain mocked her, but she refused to give in just yet. “I d-don’t do this,” she said before she could think about the words tumbling out. Dammit. That’s not what I wanted to say. Her responsibility gene had gotten the best of her once again.

“You don’t talk? Or you don’t give a nice guy your name?”

“You’re the furthest thing from a nice guy, Aaron. You not only sent me a drink. You sent over a bottle of top shelf alcohol. If that doesn’t scream strings-attached I don’t know what does.”

The hot-as-hell guy slammed his fist into his chest in mock pain. “You wound me.”

Tonya chuckled. “You can find another willing girl in this bar. I would give you five minutes before you had them walking out the front door with you.”

He clicked his tongue in a chiding way and leaned over the small table, getting close enough this time that Tonya could smell his cologne. His dress shirt flexed over muscles that he most certainly worked out to get. Her hormones drank in the male beauty greedily and she just stood there…letting herself bask in the attention.

“I don’t want a girl. I want a woman to walk out of here with me tonight. And the only woman I’m interested in is you.”

Tonya swallowed and couldn’t help staring again. Straight into those deep brown eyes with flecks of gold. God, he was gorgeous. She’d never seen a man whose eyes literally sparkled with interest. It was like she could feel his desire right through the air. This is bad. So bad. You are not this person. You don’t do random hookups.

“So if I turned you down flat, you’d walk out of here alone tonight?”

“Broken-hearted and alone. Yes ma’am.” The silver words slipped off his tongue like he really believed them. He shifted his body, coming around the curve of the table until he was standing next to her. His scent filled her lungs. The spicy cologne mixed with alcohol spelled risk with a capital R.

Her body was seriously on vibrate. Everything was tuned into his every move. Every breath. She knew he had both hands in his pockets at this very moment. And she knew she wished both of those hands were on her body instead.

Her nipples strained beneath the fabric of her soft sweater. Coming without a bra had been a mistake. But she’d been comfortable already and hadn’t wanted to put one back on to go out. It was just supposed to be a couple of drinks out with Brit and then back to the apartment for a good night’s sleep.

Now sleep was the last thing on her mind.

“Don’t send me away, baby, I—”

Tonya’s stomach turned. “Don’t call me that,” she bit out, remembering how Bob had said it to her and to the other woman she’d caught him sleeping with. She never wanted to hear that epithet again. Ever.

“Whoa,” Aaron caught her raised hand and pulled it to his chest, impeding her quick retreat. “Slow down, sweetheart. It’s me, not whatever douchebag hurt you. You tell me who he is and I’ll eat him for lunch.” He squeezed her hand and stared down at her like she was the only person in the room.

Tonya gulped. His eyes flashed from soft to hard in a millisecond. But she wasn’t frightened of him. In fact it made her feel protected. He cared. This random stranger who was trying to pick her up in a bar genuinely cared that some other guy had hurt her. At least this guy was being honest about what he wanted. Bob had never been honest with her. Not even once.

She breathed deeply, taking in even more Aaron’s scent. Her body shivered beneath his touch now. Her breasts were heavy. Her core throbbed and her panties were so wet they were uncomfortable. What was he doing to her? Was she this needy? Would any guy have done this. Nope. Her brain was vehemently against any other man in the building. Aaron was the only one she was interested in.

“Tonya Willows,” she said softly.

The hardness in his gaze softened. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Tonya Willows.”

“Ummm, I need to…” What did she need to do? Her brain was mush like the rest of her body.

“Tell your friend we’ll be at the Windsor.”

Tonya blinked. Brit. She glanced to the bar and saw her friend with a grin wider than the damn Cheshire cat. Brit sidled over to the table and held out her hand to Aaron. A part of Tonya didn’t want them to touch. At all. He was hers. Even if it was just for the night.

“I’m Brit. You are?”

Aaron took her hand and smiled. “Aaron VonBrandt.”

“Nice name. When can I expect to see my friend again?”

Aaron chuckled and Tonya sucked in a breath. This was not normal. People did this regularly, but not her…she didn’t do hookups. She was responsible and dependable and dammit, she didn’t give a flying flip about anything but remaining in physical proximity to Aaron. Actually, getting even closer to him was at the top of her mental-to-do-list. Skin to skin was preferable.

“I’m staying at the Windsor for a couple of nights.”

Brit smiled again and held up her phone, snapping a quick picture. “Have fun, sweetie.” She gave her a quick hug and then disappeared into the crowd again before Tonya could protest and follow.

But the desire to protest had long since passed. Her clothes itched. He smelled good enough to eat and she couldn’t wait to see what was beneath his layers of dress clothes.

Aaron took her hand again and tugged gently. “I can’t wait to taste you,” he said, his voice more of a growl than she’d ever heard from a man before. Damn, he was sexy. “Every single inch of you. And then I’m gonna make you come so hard you scream my name.”

Tonya’s breath abandoned her. Just whoosh. No air. No coherent thoughts. Her knees threatened to give out. The only thing keeping her upright and moving was the gentle tug of his hand on hers. His plan sounded like a good one. And she was more than ready to participate.

They exited the bar and he pushed her up against the cool brick outside before they’d walked more than ten feet from the bar entrance. “You smell so good, like honey and wine mixed together. And I want to get drunk on you right now.” He nuzzled her neck, nipping along, moving his lips closer and closer to her collarbone. He nosed the neck of her shirt down and nibbled at the top of her breast. Everything ached. A moan slipped from her throat and she pressed herself harder against him. Her hip glanced against his erection. He groaned, moving his mouth from her neckline to the corner of her mouth. He teased her. Kissed the opposite corner. Then gripped her chin with his hand, moved her head to the side, and bit on her earlobe.

“I want everything you’ve got and then I’m going to ask for more.”

Her body responded in turn, sending a spark of pleasure straight to her center. Yes. She wanted him to take her. She wanted everything he could offer.

“I’m glad you agree.”

Had she spoken? She didn’t remember. His mouth trailed down the side of her neck again. It didn’t matter. He was in charge and she was going to follow him down the rabbit hole willingly and enthusiastically. He did something to her that no man ever had before. He made her whole body come alive more with one touch. With one kiss.

His mouth was on hers again. Their tongues tangled and danced, foreshadowing what she knew he would do to her whole body later. He pulled her along the brick, moving her one slow step at a time while he kissed. Deliberately. Thoroughly. Until there were no coherent thoughts left. Only him. All she could think about was the way his hand cupped her head and the way his other hand…was between her thighs?

Tonya’s eyes flew open. The lights were dimmer where they stood at the mouth of a semi-dark alley. At least he wasn’t attempting to finger her in the middle of Bourbon Street. But still, anyone could walk by at anytime. Their eyes met for a second. Gold flashed in his brown irises again. Damn those sparkling eyes. They’d been the end of her willpower the second she’d seen them in Lucky’s.

“I can’t wait any longer,” he purred against her lips. He pushed aside her panties and slipped two fingers inside her slick heat. “I need to see you come. Right now.”

Everything inside Tonya clenched tighter. He curled his fingers and found that one place. The perfect spot. Like he knew exactly how to make her world come apart. And it did.

Tonya bucked between the hardness of the brick building and the hardness of his body. He swallowed the cry that escaped her, muffling it with his pleased groan of satisfaction.

A moment later she watched him put his fingers into his mouth. The same fingers that he’d had inside her—driving her over the edge. Holy crap. She ran her hands over her rumpled skirt, flattening it back into place, all the while still unable to draw her gaze from him licking his fingers.

Goner. That’s what she was.

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Dammit, she tasted perfect. Like all his favorite foods wrapped up in one sweet lick. And to top it all off, he could feel the magick drawing him to her. Like a lasso had gripped them and wouldn’t let them go.

Fuck, he needed to slow down. This wasn’t a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am situation. Given what he knew about this feeling, she was probably his mate. And he needed to slow way the hell down. Not come on too strong. She was a human, and she wouldn’t understand all this Fate stuff.

Aaron pulled back off the wall, holding himself up with his hands on either side of her body, and just stared at her. She was so damn beautiful.

Tonya.

She even had a beautiful name.

He hadn’t been able to see it from across the bar, but when he was close to her, he could see the depths of the blue in her eyes. He’d never seen a color like it before. And when she gazed at him in that lust haze, post-orgasm, holy shit.

Mine.

The wolf had spoken.

Aaron slid his finger down the side of her cheek and she turned her head into the touch. “You look so beautiful when you come,” he whispered. I want to see you like that forever. But he couldn’t say that out loud.

That was something George would say, and then the girl would run off because he was moving too fast. No. Aaron had to take it much slower with Tonya Willows. She was too important to rush with.

“That was…” She took a deep breath and nuzzled against his hand. “I’ve never done that before.”

Aaron’s head snapped back in shock. “Never had an orgasm before?”

“No, silly.” Her eyes sparkled at him. “We’re in public, Aaron VonBrandt. There are people walking on the street not ten feet from here. I’ve never done that before.”

“Oh,” he said, leaning in for a kiss and sliding his hand down the side of her body, toward her core again. “You want to do it again?

Her laugh edged him onward, but she stopped the progress of his hand and pushed it aside. She pulled his body flush against hers. “I want you. Inside me.”

His wolf rumbled inside and Aaron tried to laugh off the intensity of the feeling of his animal showing itself. “I want that, too,” he said. “But that, we’re not doing in public.”

I don’t want anyone else to see you like that but me.

He couldn’t say that out loud, either. That was the creepy too-much guy thing to say. Aaron VonBrandt was suave. And Tonya Willows was his mate. He had to take his time with her. Make her happy. Satisfy her. This was a long game. It would take time.

Plus, as soon as he had sex with her, they were going to be half-bonded. He couldn’t do that in public and risk her flipping out.

Gotta slow down.

“Let’s go to my hotel, then,” he said. “It’s not far from here.”

“Lead the way.” She took his hand and gave him a hooded glance that just about made him forget all his willpower and take her against the wall after all.

“You sound like you’re from here.” Aaron tried to make a little small talk, to distract his thoughts from going to the point of no return while they were still on the street.

“I am.” A sudden flash of sadness glanced her features and it made his chest constrict. He didn’t like seeing her like that. After a moment, she continued, “My grandmother raised me here—her family has been here since the eighteenth century. I don’t remember either of my parents. And she just…recently, she…”

The quiver of her lip made Aaron stop on the crowded street and put his arm around her, taking her out of the flow of people and into the narrow door of a dark shop. He slipped his arms around her and held her against him. No sexuality this time. Just pure need to be touching her. Comforting her.

A part of him marveled at that. He had been doing the party-boy rally for so long, he never thought he’d find a mate—someone who would bring out his protective instincts like this. But he wanted to cover her with himself. Make her feel how powerful his wolf was. How much he would be able to protect her and keep her safe. He’d never wanted to do that before.

It was a little unnerving.

And yet fucking great.

“Thank you,” she whispered against his shoulder. Aaron could hear the tears in her voice and he grabbed her neck, sliding his fingers under her short hair, and cradling her head against him.

“She sounds important to you,” he whispered back. “I’m sorry you lost her.”

That brought a sob out of her that sounded so heartbreaking, it made Aaron want to tear the whole world apart to find the source of that sadness and kill it. He wanted her never to feel that way again.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling back to look in his eyes. “This is like the least sexy thing I could possibly have done. It’s just…she has only…been…gone…for…” Tears were streaming down her cheeks so thick, it was like a dam had broken inside and she was going to blow.

He pulled her hard against his chest and said, “You have no idea how sexy you are to me, right now.”

She laughed through the sob and nestled against his body. “You are such a liar, Aaron VonBrandt. I’d be willing to bet you’re calculating minimum safe distance right now, just hoping you can get away from the crying female.”

“That couldn’t be less true.” He wrapped his arms around her. I’m never letting you go. But he couldn’t say the George thing. Instead, he said, “We’ve got time.”

Tonya sniffed and drew her gaze up to his face, and something zinged Aaron straight to his heart. In the dark little alcove of the closed shop, under the awning on the crowded street, he fell in love with her. With the absolute admiration that shone in her ocean eyes. With the vulnerability of her whole world having been shattered to pieces. With the way she looked up at him like he was her hero.

He wanted to be.

Dammit. For the first time in his life, he wanted to be.

[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Chapter 5″]

In that moment, Tonya knew Aaron was the one for her. The man who would stick by her through the ugly cries and the good times. He hadn’t run when she’d fallen apart. In fact, he’d insisted the opposite. She leaned into his warm body as they strolled slowly down the sidewalk. The weeping sound of a saxophone carried on the warm breeze and lifted her spirits with more memories of when her grandparents had been with her. She’d had a good life with them. They would want her to seize this opportunity. Grab love by the horns as her grandmother would’ve said.

Tonya turned and faced Aaron, halting their forward momentum. “How did you find me?” she asked, staring up at the pure adoration spelled across his face.

“Fate,” he whispered. “There’s no other explanation.”

She stretched to her tiptoes and he met her halfway, claiming her mouth like she was offering the last breath of air on an oxygen deprived planet. She wrapped her arms around his neck, completely oblivious to the passing people on the sidewalk. All she wanted was him. And he wanted her. Her heart pounded. And their tongues danced against each other, drawing rumbling moans from both their chests.

With each nibble and bite from Aaron’s mouth, Tonya’s body heated further. She needed more than this. More than just a taste. Her whole body strummed with a desperate aching desire. “Weren’t we going to your hotel?” she murmured between breaths.

“Mmmhmmm,” he growled from the back of his throat. Then jerked away from her with a moan that wasn’t sexy.

Tonya’s heart froze in her chest. Aaron bent at the waist, clutching his head in his hands. “What’s wrong? What can I do?” She inched closer, touching his shoulder.

“I—don’t—” he gasped. “Alpha,” he said, gritting his teeth.

Alpha? Tonya grabbed his arm and kept him from sinking all the way down to the grimy sidewalk. Was that a code word for something? “Which hotel? Where can I take you?”

He gasped for a breath and pointed at the Monteleone. “Car is there. Have to get car.”

“We can get your car, but I’m driving. You’re in no condition.” She pulled his arm over and around her shoulder so she could bear more of his weight. It was only two more blocks to the Monteleone, but they stretched forever with Aaron’s weight bearing down on her back. “I should just call an ambulance,” she said. She’d just found him. She couldn’t lose him to what…a brain aneurism? Migraine? Stroke? Her mind was playing out worst case scenarios by the dozen on fast forward.

“No,” he groaned. “No hospital. It’s my—” he stopped midsentence and gritted his teeth. “Please, just help me to the car.”

He was crazy. That had to be it. “What’s wrong?” Why wouldn’t he let her take him to the hospital. “You could be dying.”

He shook his head, took a breath and fought to regain his balance. He squeezed her arms and held so that he looked her straight in the eyes. “I need help getting home. Please. I’m not dying, I promise.” The effort had cost him dearly. His skin was pale and his mouth was pinched from pain.

Tonya nodded. “Of course. Which car?” They were almost to the Monteleone parking lot.

Aaron pulled a valet ticket from his pocket and handed it to her as they walked up under the pass-through drive. She handed it to the waiting valet and the man barely gave them a second glance. Drunks weren’t anything to make a fuss about in New Orleans and Aaron looked like he had the mother of all hangovers.

The valet returned a moment later with a luxury Mercedes Benz sedan. Of course you would be rich. She readjusted Aaron’s weight and got him into the front passenger seat.

“Aaron,” a male voice called from behind Tonya. “Wait.” A large blond man was stumbling toward them from the hotel doorway, looking just as blanched as Aaron. Was this illness catchy?

“Toby?” Aaron groaned, blocking Tonya from closing the door on him. “He has to come too,” Aaron said between gritted teeth. “Is George here?”

“Who is this? And who is George?” Tonya looked between the two men. One curling up in the passenger seat like he wanted to die and the other barely walking straight, but determinedly making his way toward the car.

“Toby VonBrandt, ma’am.” The blonde spoke and pointed to the back door of the sedan.

Why not? Tonya opened the door and waited for the new arrival to climb into the back seat. She slammed the door on Toby, handed the valet a couple dollars from her pocket, and walked around to the driver’s side. Her night had gone sideways. “Is this George person sick too? What’s going on with you guys?” How many more VonBrandts will we be looking for?

“George won’t be sick,” Aaron said softly.

“He’s probably off with that long-haired chick from the bar,” Toby said, forcing each word out through obvious gut-wrenching pain. Tonya’s chest clenched sympathetically. Why had Aaron started having pain so suddenly? And why the hell would another person be suffering the exact same thing at the exact same time?

Did they have food poisoning?

“George is a friend. Toby is my cousin.”

“He’ll be fine,” Toby said, groaning and leaning down in the seat. “Something happened to the al—” he stopped and peered up, meeting Tonya’s gaze in the rearview mirror.

Tonya pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. There was that word again. Alpha. What were these guys? Military? They were big enough, for sure. She finally dropped her gaze and looked back at Aaron. Her heart softened, she hated seeing him in pain. Anyone really. “What can I do to help?”

“George,” Aaron said, his voice barely audible.

“Alright, I’ll go check the bar for him. If he’s not there…then what?” She waited for an answer before putting the car in gear.

“Somewhere.”

She shook her head, confused. “Somewhere what?”

Aaron pulled in a deep breath. “I need to get to Somewhere, Texas. It’s a town.”

Texas? They were in New Orleans. Did he honestly expect her to just drive him to Texas? The place was like its own country. What if this Somewhere place was way over in the west. It could take fifteen hours to get there.

A hand on her arm made her release the breath she’d been holding. Aaron’s touched soothed her nerves. She craved his touch. In just the short time since she’d met him, she’d barely been able to think about anything else. His kiss. His hands. His mouth. Dammit. Focus.

“It’s about six hours,” Aaron said. “Please.”

She turned the car on and headed for the bar where the night with Aaron VonBrandt had started. Hopefully his friend George wouldn’t be sick…or too hard to find. At least the bar was small. Even if she had to ask everyone in the place, it was doable.

She pulled into a temporary parking space, left the car on, and ran inside. The place hadn’t changed much since she left. Single guys looking for a girl to get lucky. Single girls hoping for more than just a one-night stand. Not always. But that’s usually how it divided down. She’d been one of the lucky ones tonight. At least she’d thought so before Aaron started having a heart attack in front of her. Oh, God! Was that it? She pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. Nope. They both couldn’t be having one at the same time. Odds were too great.

Tonya walked up to guy after guy. Still no George.

“George?” She stopped again at a table where a handsome guy was talking to a brunette with really long hair. Toby had mentioned something about long hair. Maybe she’d get lucky.

“Sorry, lady,” the tall dark-haired man answered.

The brunette frowned and reached for Tonya’s arm. “He’s over there,” she said, pointing at a slickly dressed guy buying a drink for a red head with really long hair. Wow. Never thought of hair as a fetish.

“Thanks.”

Tonya crossed the bar and stepped between George and the redhead.

“Hey, find your own date, bitch,” the red head hissed, pushing Tonya backward.

Tonya recovered her footing and snapped angrily. “His friends are waiting for him in a car outside about to leave to go back to Texas.” Tonya glared pointedly up into his dark brown eyes. Confusion glazed his face for a second before melting away into recognition.

“Is Aaron okay?”

“He sent me in here after you. He and Toby are sick. You coming or playing with hairstyle red-head Barbie for the rest of the night?”

“Sorry, babe. Gotta run.” He plunked down a couple of twenties on the bar. “Enjoy a drink on me, okay.”

Tonya didn’t wait around to hear the whining. It followed them all the way to the door of the bar and then melted away into the sounds of the noisy New Orleans night. “Street side, back seat,” she ordered, heading for the driver’s door.

“I’m George Laughton, you are?” he asked, climbing into the sedan.

Tonya got situated and closed her door, put the car in gear, and pulled away from the crowded sidewalk. “I’m Tonya Willows. I’m driving these guys to Somewhere. They’re sick and won’t let me take them to a hospital.”

“Wait? What?” George glanced at both guys and then back at her in the rearview mirror. “Do you know what’s wrong with them?”

Tonya shook her head. “I was hoping you would. The only strange thing Aaron said was alpha. Are you guys military? Why aren’t you sick?”

“I. Um, Aaron didn’t explain?”

Tonya fought the urge to pull over to the shoulder and scream. There was an explanation and neither one of the stupid men in the car had bothered to share.

“Look. I’m freaking out over here. Aaron starts acting like he’s dying. Won’t let me take him to a hospital. Now they’re both barely conscious.” She took a deep breath and focused on the dark road ahead of her. “We were making out one minute and then…it was like…this. Swear to God, you’d better tell me what’s going on, George Laughton.” Tears brimmed her eyes and she sniffed back a sob. “I don’t know why I care about a stranger so much. Or why I’m driving six hours to some little town in Texas instead of taking them both straight to a hospital anyway. I—”

“I don’t suppose Aaron mentioned the word mate or bond? Maybe?”

“Mate? Bond? What kind of hoodoo are you people into? Should I get out now? Is this all an elaborate ruse to get me back to your place where I’m going to be some kind of blood sacrifice.”

George’s face ghosted whiter than Toby or Aaron. Tonya was at least assured that none of them were occultists or serial killers.

“No. It’s nothing like that. I just. There’s a secret that’s not mine to tell. But I promise, Aaron will be fine. We just have to get him back home. Please, trust me. I know you shouldn’t. I know we met like five seconds ago. But,” he said, taking a pause and deep breath. “Trust that feeling you have for Aaron. The little voice inside you that says you need him. The one that says you’re meant to be with him? You feel that, right? That’s why you’re with him. That’s why you’re driving him to Texas.”

Tonya stared at the white lines on the asphalt as they sped by. Was that why she was helping? She was a sucker for anyone hurting or in need, but she was smarter than this. She was with three men she didn’t know, driving through the countryside in the middle of the night to someplace called Somewhere. What kind of name was Somewhere?

She couldn’t stop. Every time she thought about pulling over at a gas station and calling a cab to take her back home, away from the crazy of the night, her chest hurt. Her heart hurt. It wasn’t a voice she heard. But there was a feeling of need.

One that she couldn’t ignore.

[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Chapter 6″]

“I have to get to Somewhere,” Aaron said, his voice muffled and laced with pain. Tonya took a quick glance over and grimaced sympathetically, he was rolling against the door moaning. Something was hurting him. She just wished she knew what. And how to stop it.

“Sshhhh. It’s okay,” she said, reaching to stroke his arm. A spark of energy passed between them and she gasped, yanking her hand away in surprise. There was something about this man. Something she couldn’t explain. And like George had said, she was drawn to him because of it.

“Dad,” Aaron groaned again.

“Dammit,” George muttered from the backseat. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“What?” Tonya asked?

“I—” he cut himself off and averted his gaze from the rearview mirror.

Tonya sighed. Again with the secrets and hidden meanings. She was driving three guys back to Somewhere and two of them were nearly delirious with pain. “You need to just tell me,” Tonya said. “This is ridiculous.”

She stared at George in the rearview mirror again, but he wouldn’t look at her. Instead her attention was drawn to the other man in the backseat—Toby. But Toby wasn’t Toby anymore. An iridescent shimmer surrounded him and the man became a wolf right in front of her eyes. Holy frack. Her heart stopped. At least it felt like it did. She couldn’t breathe.

“Car. Car!” George yelled.

Tonya put her attention back on the two-lane highway and swerved to her her lane, narrowly missing a honking monster pick-up truck. “I—You—” Nope. She yanked the steering wheel hard and pulled onto the wide shoulder. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be.

“Tonya, stop.”

She grabbed her purse, got out of the car, and started walking down the side of the road. She would just call a cab. Or something. Or Brit. Yes. Brit would come pick her up.

George was right next to her a few moments later. He reached for her arm and she recoiled. “Don’t you dare touch me. You people are crazy. I don’t do crazy.”

“We’re not crazy. He’s just in a lot of pain. Toby knew better than to transform in front of you, but I think something has happened to Mr. VonBrandt. They’re both acting like they’ve lost their connection to their alpha.” George sighed. “Look, you can’t stand out here on the side of the highway. It’s not safe and Aaron would literally kill me if I let anything happen to you.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tonya said, narrowing her gaze. “Is he going to take a bite out of my ass first or yours?” She pointed back at the truck. Where Aaron had been sitting a big brown wolf had taken his place. It’s lip was curled up and it’s eyes were gold.

“Fuck it all,” George said, throwing up his hands. “Look,” he said turning back to her, ignoring the two wolves in the sedan illuminated by the ceiling lamp. “I’m not supposed to tell you stuff about the family, but if they are both shifting in front of you, I’m pretty sure that absolves me of my vow.”

“Why aren’t you sick? Why are you a big fluffy wolf in the car, too?” Tonya barely kept her voice from escalating to a scream. This couldn’t be happening. Had she really been making out with a guy who could turn into a wolf? A guy she still really hoped to make out with again. Oh, God! Tonya. Get a grip. That is so not happening.

“I’m human. My mom was a wolf, but not my dad. It only passes genetically from the males.”

“So you know about the family curse, but don’t have to participate?”

George nodded.

“I assume you’re going to tell me they all shift on full moons, too?”

George nodded again.

Holy shit. “This can’t be real.”

“Oh, it’s very real. And Aaron needs you. Your presence is helping him. The only reason for them to be this sick…” George’s words halted and he sniffed just a little. “His dad died. Their alpha. They are all connected to him and when a wolf loses an alpha the pain is horrific. They shifted because it became too much.”

“His dad?” Tonya breathed out. Her chest tightened she gulped for air. She knew loss. She’d lost everyone. All her family. It was bad enough to mourn and feel grief, but to be tied to them magickally by some bond that created physical pain. To literally be tortured by their absence. It wasn’t right. Wasn’t fair. “Why me? Why am I helping him?”

“It sounds sappy, but I think you’re meant to be with him. You’re his mate.”

Tonya shook her head and wrapped her arms around herself. The wind on the highway was picking up and she missed the warmth of the sedan. The warmth of Aaron sitting next to her. But he wasn’t there anymore. A big animal was in his place.

“We just met. I barely know him.”

“Aaron was taking you back to his hotel?”

Tonya nodded. “Yes.”

“He’s never done that. He would never bring a woman to his bed. You’re special.” He glanced nervously at the car and then back to Tonya. “Could we please get back in the car. He’s getting angry that I’m out here with you alone.”

“What? He thinks you’re trying to win me over for yourself?”

George rubbed his face and groaned. “Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past him to think that. Please just tell him he doesn’t have to worry about that when you get back in the car. I’m quite fond of my limbs and would like to keep them attached.”

“What does being a mate mean, exactly?”

“Nope. Not going there.” George shook his head emphatically. “I’ve already said more than enough. Aaron can explain the rest when we get back to the ranch.”

He walked away, leaving her standing alone. He climbed into the back seat with the wolf who had formerly been Toby. Aaron’s wolf stared out the windshield at her. No curled lip. No anger in his gaze.

Just watching. Waiting.

For her to make a choice.

She still had her purse and phone. She could call Brit. She could leave this whole crazy mess behind. Never think about Aaron VonBrandt again or the fact that the world was a little bigger than she’d previously thought.

Tonya took a step toward the sedan. Then another. Deep down she didn’t want to forget about Aaron. She wanted to feel the way he’d made her feel earlier tonight. George thought there was something special about her, but in her mind it was Aaron that was special. Evidence of that was sitting in the front passenger seat in the form of a large reddish brown wolf.

She reached the driver’s door and opened it. Holy shit he was big. The wolf’s shoulders were nearly to the ceiling and he had to keep his head lowered, just to fit in the small vehicle. Tonya sat down in the driver’s seat and closed the door. Deep breaths. You can do this.

“You can talk to him. He’s in wolf form, but they can still understand speech,” George whispered from the back.

Her hands shook in her lap as she turned to face the big wolf. He was staring straight at her. His face so close, she could feel the pants of his breath against her cheeks.

“I’m so sorry about your dad,” Tonya whispered. She tensed. He was moving closer. The wolf—Aaron—pressed his head against her shoulder and whined. Even in animal form she could recognize grief. The fear that’d built up in her chest and frozen her stiff, dissipated immediately. She wrapped an arm around the massive wolf’s neck and squeezed. “I’m so sorry. I’m going to get you home. I promise.”

[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=”Chapter 7″]

“This is the driveway,” George said, pointing at a large wrought iron gate just ahead of her on the dark road. The wolf next to her—Aaron—huffed and whined. Even Toby made a noise from the back like a wolfy version of hurry up.

She made the turn and pulled up to a small black keypad. “Now what?”

“Type in 2430. The gate will open,” George answered.

She entered the code and watched the gate slide open. Then continued down the driveway deeper onto the ranch. She couldn’t see a house yet. She couldn’t see anything, but fields and trees.

“How far?” she asked, her voice soft.

“Just around the curve. My dad should be there and a few of the moon widows. I would assume they’ve all gathered to wait for Aaron to get back.”

“Moon widows?”

“Mates that don’t turn,” George replied, as if having a significant other that magickally turned into a wolf was completely normal.

Breathe. Tonya reminded herself. She wanted to be here. She’d chosen to be here. Over and over through the six hour drive she’d reminded herself that she needed Aaron. She didn’t understand it, but she hadn’t been able to leave him. She still didn’t want to leave him.

Sure enough, around the bend in the road the house loomed in the distance, lit by dozens of soft yellow lights. And surrounded by moving forms darting between the shadows, their eyes glowing yellow in the reflecting moonlight. More wolves. A howl cut through the silence of the night. Then another. And another.

“Holy frack! How many are there?” She asked, meeting George’s gaze in the mirror.

“Couple dozen at least. Been a while since I counted. Could be more. Not everyone lives in Somewhere.”

Tonya drove past the house—no, mansion was probably the correct term. The place was enormous. Dark brick. Dozens of windows. Colonial pillars in the front and a huge patio and covered area on the side and wrapping around to the back. She parked near the front door. Several people ran outside to meet them.

“Thank the gods, you’re back!” One middle-aged woman flung open the door, releasing Aaron from the front seat.

He peered at Tonya, his eyes bright yellow. Tonya’s heart jumped inside her chest. She couldn’t breathe. Not while he was staring at her.

“Aaron,” the woman spoke again. “They’re gathering in the back. I’m so sorry my sweet boy, but they need you. Right now.”

The big wolf broke eye contact and turned to glance up at the woman at the door. He shook his head and slipped out of the car away from them both.

“Mom,” George said, opening the back door. “What happened? Do you know?”

“It was horrible. Their plane got caught in a storm. It went down. They’re trying to locate the wreckage, but when everyone started losing it at the same time. I—There’s just nothing to be done. We tried to contact you boys, but no one would pick up their phone.”

Tonya sat staring out the windshield. A plane crash. Someone had died. Their alpha?

“Let Toby out, Mom,” George said, gesturing to the door near his mother. He closed his and opened the driver’s door. He bent down and laid a hand on her leg, squeezing it gently. “Hey, Tonya. Breathe for me okay.”

“George who is this? Why is she here?”

He waved her off. “Just give me a minute. I’ll be right behind you. Go help the others.” He grasped her chin lightly and turned her to face him. His hands were warm, like fire against her skin. Was she cold? She didn’t remember feeling cold. But right now nothing was processing. She was in Texas. With strangers. And those strangers had turned into wolves. Well two of them had. But now she was on a ranch surrounded by wolves.

“I—this—” she tried to make a sentence, but it just wouldn’t happen.

“I know. Werewolves. It’s lot to process. You did good in the car. I’m impressed. Really. Most people would’ve already run to the hills screaming that we’re all lunatics.” He rubbed her bare arm up and down, like he was trying to warm her. “Aaron still needs you. And you probably should follow me to get a better idea of what’s going on.”

Her whole body shivered. Wolves. Magick. Aaron. George said Aaron still needed her. “Where did he go?” she said, finally managing to string together a coherent sentence.

“There you are,” George said, his lips curving into a smile. “Brave girl. They’re gathering for the ceremony in the back. Come on,” he said, moving to grasp her hands. He pulled her up out of the car and led her around the side of the house.

Her shoes crunched through the dry grass. Then they were on a stone walk. Then she couldn’t breathe. Standing before her in a large circle were dozens of people. Naked people. Men. Women. Teens. They all had the same look of unimaginable pain written across their tight faces. Their bodies were hunched and they barely looked able to stand.

Everyone was looking at Aaron. God, he was beautiful. His bare skin reflected the moonlight. There were so many naked men, but the only one she even noticed was Aaron. He was the one that mattered. He was the only one she wanted to see naked.

“I didn’t think this time would come for many years. I thought I had longer with my father. With our alpha. I’m sorry I was so far away. I’m sorry you had to feel the pain of his loss for so long.”

Murmurs of understanding filtered through the still night air.

“You felt his loss too, young man. It’s not just us that lost an alpha. You lost a father.” An unfamiliar male voice rang out from the crowd of bodies.

“His dad is the alpha?” I whispered to George. “His dad? He died?”

George nodded. “The pain they felt was the loss of the alpha bond. Each wolf in the pack is connected to the alpha. To lose that connection is extremely painful.”

“What will they do?”

“They must bond to the new alpha,” he said slowly.

Her breath caught in her throat. The new alpha—was Aaron.

A baby cried, drawing her attention to a group of clothed people standing near the back door of the patio. A couple men. Several women. And a huge group of children. One of the women was bouncing a little baby in her arms, trying to hush it. Tonya recognized the middle-aged woman George had called mother. She stood in the group too, holding a toddler on each hip.

“Should we stand with them?” Tonya asked. “The other humans?”

George shook his head. “We’re fine here. Those are the moon widows, the human mates to wolves. The children are all wolves. They won’t shift until they hit puberty.”

Aaron spoke again and the crowd hushed. “I will take my father’s place. I pledge to care for this pack and make every choice from this day forward your betterment. For the pack. I will be the man my father wanted me to be. The man you all deserve.”

A small group of naked people stepped toward Aaron. He stretched out his hand to them. They spoke in unison. In a different language. Something old. Tonya didn’t recognize. They all touched his hand then shifted into a wolf and left the yard.

Again and again this happened.

A group or a few people would step forward from the crowd and repeat the process. They would say a foreign phrase, touch Aaron’s hand or his shoulder, then shift under a shimmer of magick and run as a wolf toward the trees. Until there was one man left.

An older man with grey in his hair and grey in his beard. He walked up to Aaron, his pain obvious in the tightness around his eyes. “You will be a good alpha, Aaron. He always knew you would.”

“Thank you uncle,” Aaron said, his voice soft and breaking with emotion. They embraced briefly. His uncle recited the same phrase everyone else had. Then shifted and joined the other glowing eyes in the trees beyond the yard.

Aaron turned to her. The pain was gone from his face, replaced by sadness…and something else, perhaps determination.

“Come inside once he leaves,” George whispered and left her side.

“Once he leaves…” Tonya said, then turned her focus back to Aaron. He was walking toward her now. Bare-assed naked and absolutely glorious. Except all she could remember was that he’d just found out his father died. Possibly both his parents. She certainly shouldn’t be looking at him as though he were a five-course meal and she was starving.

“Thank you for helping me, I—” he said. He brushed a tendril of hair behind her ear and Tonya felt a shiver of delight wash over her body. That energy. Every time they touched. It was extraordinary. It lit her on fire like she’d never truly felt alive before. “I know you must think I’m so kind of freak. But I don’t want you to leave. Please don’t go. I want to see you in the morning.” His voice dropped to a deep bass. “Preferably in my bed.”

Heat rushed to Tonya’s cheeks. “But, I—you just—”

He grasped her hand between his and lifted it to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to the palm. Her breathing sped up. Her heart raced in her chest like she was being chased.

“People have been telling me everything would make more sense when I met my mate. When I met the woman Fate would set in my path. I never believed them. Not till I met you. My whole life has changed in the space of a few moments. I’ve lost my parents. I’ve become alpha to my pack. People depend on me now and I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but the only thing that I know makes sense out of any of this chaos is you, Tonya.”

A howl split the air. Then another and another. Tonya looked past Aaron’s shoulder toward the woods. Then she looked back at the man who had just laid bare his heart for her. A man. A wolf. Both. Did it matter? She felt the same way about him. He was her calm in the storm of her chaos. For the first time since her grandparents had passed, she felt as if she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“I have to go run with the pack.”

“You have to—oh,” Tonya said, realizing he was going to go run as a wolf.

“Will you be here in the morning?” He asked, his face as raw as it had been when the first bite of pain had struck him earlier that night.

She nodded, unable again to form coherent words.

His hand cupped her face, turning it up just slightly so he could kiss her. She wanted him too. She’d wanted that and more and then the crazy had started and now she was in Texas. With wolves.

A chuckle rippled up from his bare chest. “I can see all the thoughts tumbling around in your head. I promise to answer all your questions.”

Softly, gently, like the whisper of a breeze, his mouth teased hers. He had firm lips, but velvety soft. Tonya pressed closer to his warm body. He traced her lips with his tongue. Then his tongue was inside her mouth and her senses were whirling.

When he finally pulled away, her fingers had latched onto his upper arms. Her breath had descended to pants. She was burning from the inside out and all she wanted to do was climb the damn man like a tree and kiss him some more.

“Will you wait for me?” He asked again.

“Yes,” she answered. “I’ll be here.”

He nodded, released her from his grasp. His body shimmered in the moonlight, shifting in midstride into his big red-brown wolf form. He faded into the shadows of the forest and then he was gone. A long low howl broke the night. And somehow, she knew it was Aaron. She could feel it deep in her soul. Feel the pain. The longing. And the hope.

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