Prologue

 

IT WAS not what I expected. An hour after experiencing the happiest moment of my life… I lived through the worst.

When I met my mate last winter, six months ago, I instantly geared up for my happily ever after, made plans to move to wherever he lived—and it took me a moment to realize what he was really saying to me.

No.

He was saying… no.

We would not be together.

Though he felt the pull, it made no sense for him or his life.

He explained in no uncertain terms that he was neither gay nor bi—so we could be nothing to each other. Ever.

That took a moment to digest, and then there I was, trying really hard not to scream, because it was, literally, the only thing I could think to do. I’d waited all my life for a mate, and when he finally showed up, I got one who didn’t want me?

It got worse. Not only was he a wolf, but he was special, the fenrir, the guardian of his pack, and having a lion shifter for a mate would only be trouble. He meant no disrespect, and he was sure I was a good guy, but… well… I was, in fact, a guy. What the hell was he supposed to do with me? Didn’t I understand? His whole life was planned, and it didn’t include being gay, because he was supposed to breed.

Breed.

Breed did not sound good.

“Breed” was not fathering children in a loving home.

“Breed” was cold and impersonal, and I didn’t like the sound of that at all.

On top of everything else, I was a lion. Was I not aware interspecies mating was forbidden?

“By who?”

“By everyone, you daft man!”

The accent—Scottish—made my knees wobbly, which helped nothing.

“We cannae ever be together. Ye must forget me.”

He might as well have told me to stop breathing, and then I got mad, because, really, what the hell kind of reaction to finding your mate was that?

My pride kicked in. I was a lion, after all, the superior shifter, and I decided the best course of action was to forget him completely. If he didn’t want me, I surely didn’t want him. Unfortunately, putting him out of my mind—and heart—was easier said than done.

Different species, as far as I knew, couldn’t be mates. There was no draw, no natural pull if you weren’t the same kind of shifter. It made no sense, but telling myself that, knowing it in my head, did nothing to lessen the ache of parting. When I lifted my eyes to look into Kelvin’s the first time, I’d felt it, the pulse of desire, of need, but more than that, a settling in my soul that was completely alien.

I could breathe.

I was safe.

And the warmth that rolled off the man made me want to curl up beside him and languish in his heat.

I wanted to taste him and I craved the same from him: desire, throbbing, aching need, and more than anything, possessiveness. Knowing I was looking at him for the last time was heartbreaking.

When he began speaking, I figured it would be to share the same painful regret. I got a lecture instead.

Kelvin MacCurdy paced in front of me as he confessed that whatever was going on between us, whatever weird animal pheromones were out of whack, he felt it too, but he was a wolf and I was a lion, so we were most definitely not fated mates. The very idea of that was nuts, just… insane. We could be friends, absolutely without a doubt we could be that, but nothing more, not ever.

It took only seconds for my anger to ignite, and I tried to get up, only to be shoved back down in my seat.

He made a sort of strangled noise in the back of his throat, as I glared at him. “Gonne no’ do tha’.”

“What?” I was having trouble following his reasoning as well as his accent. Arman understood him perfectly, probably heard it differently than I did. But he’d been all around the world when he was a Marine and was fluent in more than one language. I had English going for me, and even that was dicey upon occasion.

He gestured at me and I understood that sulking was not something he wanted to see.

“Okay, I gotta go,” I muttered, trying to get up again.

“Wait,” he ordered, dropping down to one knee, hands braced on the bench at each side of my thighs. “No’ yet.”

I leaned forward, breathing him in, the sensual scent of him, sweat and sun, overwhelming, making it impossible to keep my eyes open. I lifted my face like you did into a warm breeze to feel it on your skin.

“I’ve no words for ye.”

I sighed deeply and opened my eyes to find him staring at me hard. “It’s okay.”

He shook his head, and I saw the pain and realized as a tremor jolted me that it hurt worse seeing him distressed than feeling it myself.

The world ground to a halt as I had a true out-of-body experience.

I never thought it would happen to me. I had shut the door on feeling anything years ago, after my parents died. Once they, the anchors of my life, were gone, I changed. If I didn’t benefit, I didn’t care. The first question out of my mouth was always “What about me?” But all at once, my heart felt like it would burst if I did one thing to hurt him.

I would have thrown myself in front of a train to keep him safe, so soothing away even a drop of pain didn’t faze me.

“It’ll go away,” I promised, my voice husky, coaxing, as I swallowed my tears before they escaped. I stood up, brushing one of his hands away firmly but gently. “Don’t worry. I’ll forget all about you, and you’ll do the same.”

“Why wid I be wanting tha’?” he asked as he rose to his towering height, staring down at me for a moment before he took my chin in his hand. He was big, six seven, covered everywhere in thick, heavy muscle, and it should have been scary because, being that powerful, he could deliver pain without even meaning to. But not for a second did his size give me pause; all I wanted was to be under him. I could barely breathe through my hunger. But I shifted away from his hand, stepped around him, and turned quickly, moving away, almost running. When I reached Arman de Soto, my alpha—who was only that because it was what we called him—I calmed and took a seat beside him.

“Jon?” he asked, sounding more concerned than he probably meant to. “You all right?”

“I’m fine,” I answered, my voice rough with wanting. I needed to claim Kelvin, scent mark him, bite him, rub my skin all over his, do anything so there could be no mistake that he belonged to me. It physically hurt not to return to him. “When are we leaving?” I asked brusquely, hoping his answer was “immediately.”

Arman explained that he had to wait for his mate. Though I could hear more arguing and talking from others, I lost focus on anything but Kelvin, pacing on the other side of the room, until Arman got loud with his yelling.

Everyone tried to get near our alpha. Maybe their thought was not to hurt him, but it was fast and there were so many people, and I simply surrendered to my beast. I was more than a little overwrought to begin with. I stripped fast and shifted, and when I roared out my frustration and anger, people screamed and ran. I didn’t care what kind of scene I was creating. I enjoyed the cowering, the scurrying. And I wanted out of that room, away from the man who was pretending I wasn’t his one and only destined mate, the other half of his soul, the only one in the world he’d ever have or find or could hope to love him as much as I could.

I knew the love would come, wasn’t that the whole deal with mates? Wasn’t that why we got one? First there was the primal pull, then the grip of desire, the desperate joining, and then slowly, building over time… came love. Before my mother died in a hospital bed, she promised I’d find that. Before a rival rex killed my father, when his pride, my pride, lost in combat, he reached for me and smiled and said the same thing.

I would be loved. I’d find my mate, and in him, I would have the depth of their love returned to me.

I was lucky. My parents knew I was gay and neither cared. If only one of them had lived, I would have had a home always, but with them both gone and the new rex giving me only a week to get out of his territory or forfeit my life, I put everything in storage in San Antonio, gave my father a funeral, and was on the road the following weekend. I couldn’t even finish my senior year of high school; I just ran. A new rex who took over a pride normally killed all the children of the lion he defeated, so it was damn nice of him to let me live. And even leaving, running, I carried the kernel of hope with me, my mother’s promise, my father’s, that my mate was out there and he would find me.

It was too bad that when he did, he didn’t want me.

 

 

I TOOK advice, for once, and followed my head and not my heart, and even though it hurt, I knew it was for the best. I tried not to care, and I was working through it until that stupid invite. If only no one had showed it to me.

I received an invitation to travel to Fairwinds, a town in the Northwest Angle and Islands in Minnesota, to visit Cromlech, the estate of the high king of the east, there to visit with his fenrir, Kelvin MacCurdy. Originally, the king, Cahill Grote, wanted my alpha to visit because he’d done the king a service by killing a pack of rogue wolves. When Arman couldn’t go, the appeal came again, this time with my name on the invitation.

Of course, the king had no idea his champion was my mate, or he never would have offered.

Kelvin had said wolves didn’t go for the whole interspecies union thing, and—Linus Hobbes, my alpha’s mate, told me—they probably weren’t big on same-sex couples either since increasing the pack was always of paramount importance. So since I was not only a lion, but also a guy, I was betting the king would have no use for me mating with his fenrir.

“What do you think I should do?” I asked Linus.

“It’s abundantly clear that you should not attend,” he replied in the clipped toned he used when he was irritated.

I understood why he was annoyed. I’d been flip-flopping for days, told him I wouldn’t go after Arman left the decision up to me, only to contradict myself in lengthy detail a half hour later.

“But what if the reason I’m being invited is because my mate wants me there.”

“It’s not,” Linus replied flatly as we walked the corridors of the mansion that our boss, Roman Howell, who owned L’Ange, preferred we call a château. I didn’t care, didn’t know the difference myself, and even though Linus explained it to me once, I hadn’t retained the information. I tended to zone out fairly easily when things had nothing to do with me.

“Why?”

“He doesn’t want you there,” Linus clarified in that crisp sort of snooty way he had when he was talking to me. It was a terrible habit that I reminded him about on occasion, but not now.

I liked him, always had, first because he was nice to look at and then because I learned his secrets and respected his strength. But none of that took away from the fact that he was often rude and condescending. While it used to be he treated everyone like something on the bottom of his shoe, now it was mostly just me, and only when I was talking about Kelvin. Perhaps there was a correlation… but I would think about that later, because at the moment I needed answers.

“How do you know what Kelvin—”

He rounded on me, and if I wasn’t a shifter, and even more so, a cat, able to correct faster than others, I would have plowed into him.

“I know that the request came from the king, not from Kelvin, and definitely not at his bequest. Why on earth would you think it would be?”

It sounded stupid in my head and even worse out loud. “I’m his mate.”

“And so?”

“Whaddya mean ‘and so’?” I volleyed, not even understanding his response. “There’s nothing more important than that!”

“To you,” he declared.

“To any shifter!”

He grabbed my arm and dragged me into a sitting room close to the side door. It was a dark room that looked like a Victorian parlor, its damask walls, antique gilded frames, and fabric-covered furniture not inviting in the least. I hated the first floor of the manor; it was like a museum with all its coldness and stuffiness and not a drop of warmth. The second and third floors weren’t much better, in my opinion, furnished with the same antiques as on the first, just not on display for public viewing. I still had to be careful, though. I once moved what I thought was a handmade planter off a table and took it to the kitchen. It was glazed brown and painted yellow inside, and when I almost dropped it, Linus had explained later that I was handling a piece of pottery made during the American Revolutionary War, and though not one of the rarer pieces in the collection, was still valued at well over two thousand dollars, so I probably didn’t want to be bumping it around.

I was surprised because it was so ridiculous. I thought perhaps Roman made it for his parents when he was very young, considering how ugly it was. But that was how it was in the house. I had no idea what treasures it held. And while I was working on learning because I wanted to help Linus, more and more I wanted to work directly for Roman instead.

So many different businesses produced revenue for L’Ange, and I wanted to start a new one. Roman had recently agreed to listen to a pitch from me if I could get him a business plan that made sense. Because he was busy, I gave it to Quade, his mate, and was now waiting to hear back once they returned from Phoenix, where they’d been for the past three months.

Quade’s pack, now Roman’s too, was there, and since Quade happened to be the alpha, the two of them bounced back and forth from Phoenix to L’Ange. Originally it was going to be half a year there and half here in Maine, but Roman had businesses to run, and even with Skype and online chats and everything else available with today’s technology, he still needed to be present for everything to run seamlessly. Of course his home, between Arman and Linus, ran like a machine, but anything off the estate was the issue.

Roman and Quade were due back the first week of October and would be leaving again on New Year’s Day. It was now July, so since they’d just left, I had a while to wait unless, of course, he thought my idea was so brilliant that he called me out of the blue. I was hoping for that. I thought I had a shot because Roman once mentioned that my story—getting my high school diploma while living at a homeless shelter and then enrolling in college classes whenever I had the money—was one he liked. I wasn’t a quitter and neither was he.

“Jon!”

Brought sharply back to the present, I focused on Linus as he stood before me.

“Sorry.”

His exasperated growl should not have been amusing, but it was Linus, and he was so beautiful, his features so delicately formed, that when he was pissed off, he looked even better. It was the flush on his cheeks, the way his opaque gray eyes glinted like moonstone, and the furrow of the perfectly arched brows. Sometimes I made him mad on purpose just to see the change.

“The point I was trying to make while you were off daydreaming was that your wants and needs are of no consequence. Sadly, you now find yourself in the unenviable position of having a mate who cannot alter his circumstances.”

I knew that.

“No matter the romantic delusions you harbor, a man like Kelvin MacCurdy, bound to his pack by obligation and tradition, will not leave his life for you.”

I nodded.

“He cannot. He will not.”

It was hard to breathe.

“So why on earth would you think he could, and why you would ever put yourself into a situation where you’d have to see him and not be able to be with him, is beyond any rational understanding. That’s the most masochistic thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“Yes,” I agreed hollowly.

He took a quick breath. “Will you stop this, then?”

“Okay.”

“Good, I’m pleased to hear you finally speaking sense.”

“Sure,” I agreed, feeling empty inside.

He took a quick breath. “Might I add that you wouldn’t want to travel to where the court is, anyway?”

“Why?”

“Do you even know where it is?”

Apparently it was extremely isolated.

“You would have to get on a plane from here, fly to Canada, board a puddle jumper with a bush pilot, and then fly again to Minnesota.”

“I don’t get that.”

“You leave the country to come back in,” he explained. “It’s the only part of the US that you have to cross a border to get to.”

“What?”

His sigh could not have been any more frustrated. “There was a map error in the 1800s, and so that area of Minnesota—I’m not certain how large, you’ll need to look that up—is situated across the Canadian border and is the farthest point north of the contiguous United States.”

It took me a moment. “All that’s just in your brain?”

His eyes fluttered, like he was this close to murdering me.

“You’re thinking it’s a big deal, then.”

“Did you hear what I said? You can only get there by leaving the country, entering Canada, and then leaving Canada to reenter Minnesota.”

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Then?”

“Then what?”

Quick huff of air. “Then”—he drew the word out long, really annoyed now—“you realize that if you were to find yourself in danger, that I could not reach you quickly.”

“You’re worried I’d get in trouble?”

“I don’t worry. I simply know.”

“That’s not fair,” I complained.

Heavy sigh.

“So you’re saying if it was somewhere else, I should go?”

“I think a bunch of misinformed cartographers—”

“What?”

“Mapmakers,” he said, enunciating the word like I was five. “—have saved you from making a fool of yourself over your mate.”

“Why?”

“It’s too far and too isolated.”

“And that bothers you?”

“Yes! It all bothers me,” he flared, still prickly. “Because once you’re there, on their land, you have to ask for permission to leave.”

“Right.” It made sense. Linus was all about having complete power over his own actions. The only person he submitted to, in any way, was Arman. Everyone else had better ask nicely and be mindful of their manners. There was no scenario in which he would willingly offer up his freedom or have any choices stripped from him. The whole idea was alien to him now that he’d remade his life.

“Listen to me.” He took a breath. “I know you’re miserable, but it would never be a good idea to go there.”

“Of course,” I confirmed softly.

“Good,” he sighed, gesturing toward the door. “Now, I need for you to attend the meeting the historical society is having for the planning of the fall festival because it’s imperative that Sheridan and I are on the conference call with the curators today to start having the Christmas ornaments and settings shipped back to the estate.”

Because of all the traveling Roman did, he’d relinquished every part of the running of his home to Linus. It was a lot of work being the overseer of L’Ange. Linus had furniture and plates and statues and artwork and all kinds of crap that came and went from the château, and that started for Christmas now. He’d hired a new guy, Sheridan Park, to be his backup, and the two of them did the majority of the planning since people who used to report directly to Roman now were subordinate to Linus, and thus to his new number two.

“I’m on it,” I promised, turning to head toward the kitchen and the mudroom next to it so I could put my boots on before I got on my Vespa. The weather had been odd the last couple of days; it had rained when it normally didn’t. Thunderstorms in the second week of July had turned the grounds into a muddy mess, and we were all walking around outside in galoshes.

“No,” he called out before I got too far. “Take one of the Range Rovers. You’ll die on the moped and Roman will blame me.”

He wasn’t fooling anyone. Roman liked me and I knew that, but so did Linus. He didn’t want me hurt either.

Grabbing the keys from the long line of hooks next to the exit, I opened the heavy carved mahogany door and dashed toward the garage. Before I moved to L’Ange, I’d never seen a three-car–garage home, and now the ten-car one was something I took for granted. Amazing how quickly my life had changed. As I slid behind the wheel of the off-road vehicle, I teared up without even realizing it until I couldn’t even see out the windshield.

I shouldn’t have been able to cry any more over Kelvin MacCurdy. There were those stages of grief, and I’d run through them all. I’d been better, paying attention on my online coursework to finish up a marketing degree I was far closer to than I’d originally thought, and working for Linus day in and day out, with all his orders and projects, made it impossible for me to focus solely on my broken love life. I was on the mend, getting stronger, and I felt like I would have been fine if the stupid invitation hadn’t shown up.

Even with all the logic Linus had thrown at me, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Kelvin had mentioned he wanted me there, and that’s how my name had come up. Perhaps it was his way of reaching out. But as Linus said, things didn’t work that way. Big scary wolves who stood as champion to the king didn’t beat around the bush. If the fenrir wanted me there, he would have sent word personally, so all I was doing by—

The tapping on the window nearly made me jump out of my skin.

“Why on earth are you still here?” Linus asked, raising his voice so I could hear him through the glass.

I started the car so the power buttons would work and I could roll the driver’s-side window down to talk to him.

“Hi,” I greeted him innocently.

His glare could have peeled paint.

“I’m leaving right now, I swear.”

“Stop obsessing over the wolf,” he commanded.

“I will.”

“Is there a timeline on that?”

“Any second now.”

He narrowed his eyes. “He’s probably already forgotten about you.”

The tears came so fast I couldn’t even see him.

He cleared his throat. “Tell me why would I say something that horrible to you?”

But I knew why.

“The man already explained where you and he stood on the subject of being mates, and trying to change that seems, in my mind, an exercise in futility.”

“But Arman changed something he didn’t like,” I reminded him.

He tilted his head as he met my gaze. “Making a change to right a wrong, and making a change because you alone stand to profit, is not the same thing.”

I shook my head. “But I’m the best thing for him.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m his mate!” I was indignant. “There can’t be anyone better.”

His shrug was so casual. “But he can have you, or the position he was groomed to hold for the rest of his life. Which would you choose?”

If he’d shot me in the heart, it would have hurt less. “So having his mate is nothing? I’m just not important at all?”

He groaned loudly. “Please try not to make everything about you. You said you didn’t want to hurt him, so don’t. Let him go.”

“Easy for you to say.” I was fast with the retort. “You have your mate.”

“Because he fought to make me his,” he said solemnly.

“Yes, I know,” I replied, because all of us in the pack knew exactly what had happened. “But isn’t that the point, then? To fight?”

“No,” he said, and his voice got soft. “Sometimes you have to accept that which you’ve been dealt because it’s best for the other person. How selfish to only think about what’s best for you and not Kelvin. If you truly love him, if you have the best interest of your mate at heart, isn’t the right thing to do to let him go?”

“I—”

“Or is pushing your agenda best, and causing him pain or even ruin?”

Well, shit… when he put it like that.

“Jonathan?”

He was really trying to make a point if he was using the long form of my name.

“This feeling will pass, I swear to you,” he promised as he gently squeezed my shoulder.

I nodded quickly.

“Now please go to the meeting for the fall festival before someone calls to tell me you’re not there.”

The agony in his voice made me smile in spite of myself. “They’re really not that bad.”

His scowl was dark. “Last year they wanted to have scarecrows lying in wait for children in the hay bale maze and to leap out and chase them. Imagine the lawsuits, if you will.”

“Kids like to be scared.”

“There is frightened and there is scarred for life. Please try and steer them in the appropriate direction.”

“Yessir,” I said, chuckling.

I felt better as I drove away, and I really hoped getting my life professionally on track would help me forget my personal life could never be. Because no matter what I did, how was I supposed to replace the only mate I would ever have?