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A broken heart. A second chance. But is Matt brave enough to risk it all again? After losing his pregnant wife to a car accident, Matt has spent the last two years existing. Then comes Alex. She could be his mate. But is she worth the pain she could cause? Buy Risking Alex today to find out if Matt's ready to take the leap and risk his heart once more.
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Also by Melissa Stevens
Also by Melissa Stevens
About the Author
Copyright 2016 Melissa Stevens
This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to people or events, real or imagined is purely coincidental.
Cover by Jaycee DeLorenzo of Sweet ‘n’ Spicy Designs
Created with Vellum
Books and series from Melissa Stevens
The Kitsune Collection
(with Change, Fight, Hunt and Live in one volume)
City of Sin:
Released by Desire
Redeemed by Desire
Revealed by Desire
The Dragon Chronicles
(with Released by Desire, Redeemed by Desire and Revealed by Desire)
Diamond Bridal Agency:
To Jodi Hutchinson Salyer: For helping me find just the right locations for events that occur in this story. Your help has been invaluable.
To Kari Trumbo: You’ve helped me with so much more than I could ever say.
To everyone who has ever thought that things are too hard and you can’t go on. It does get better, I promise.
“What’s so bad that we had to get out of the house so you could tell me? Matt didn’t bother waiting until his longtime friend could sit down in Steve’s living room before asking the question. He watched his friend, knowing whatever he had to tell him, it wouldn’t be good.
Steve looked away. “You should know, I asked her if I could tell you. She’s the one who suggested we come out here.”
“Just spit it out, man, the stalling is only making it worse.”
From the reluctant look on Steve’s face, Matt knew something was seriously wrong with JV, Matt’s sister and Steve’s mate.
“Matt, man.” Steve paused. “She was raped.”
The world went silent. His stomach churned. “What? When?” he blinked several times.
Steve sat in the recliner. “While she was still in college.”
Matt sat on the sofa, dropped his elbows on his knees and his face into his hands. “Why didn’t she tell us?”
“She didn’t tell anyone, not until I got it out of her.” Steve sounded miserable but Matt didn’t look up.
He stared at the floor for several seconds, not bothering to hide his tears as he cried. He didn’t know how much time had passed before he got up and paced the floor.
“I’ll kill the son of a bitch,” he said after several passes.
“You’d have to stand in line, but we’re both too late.” Steve’s eyes tracked him back and forth across the room as he recounted the chain of attacks and killings ending with, “they caught him and executed him before we even knew about it.” He flexed his fingers as if wishing his claws would emerge from under his nails.
Matt’s chest hurt. How had he not known that something this huge, this life changing, had happened to his sister without him knowing? Had he been so absorbed in his own life that he’d missed something so huge? “I’ve got to get out of here. I need some air.” He headed for the door.
“Take your time. Keep an eye out for my enforcers. I don’t think there are any around that you haven’t met yet, but there may be one or two around.”
“Will do.” Matt shrugged into his jacket and tugged his cap down over his ears before going outside. He hurried off the porch of the small cabin and into the patch of woods separating it from the larger cabin style house that the clan’s Khan and Karhyn lived in. Instead of taking the trail leading through the narrow strip of forest, he detoured and skirted the clearing that held the main house and large parking area that was now filled with vehicles. There were so many trucks and SUV’s that they lined the long driveway as far as Matt could see from where he stood in the woods near the house’s front yard.
He was torn. He wanted to go inside, pull JV into his arms and just hold her. But now wasn’t the time. There were too many people here. He didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her new pack, and he thought confronting her in front of them during a holiday gathering would do just that. Instead, he prowled the woods for nearly an hour, until he was sure he could contain his rage and desire to protect his sister.
By the time he’d exhausted the worst of his rage his nose and ears had gone numb. He knew he needed to go inside and warm up, but he was reluctant. He didn’t want to ruin the holiday for JV. Instead he went to the front porch and sat in one of the chairs there. He was sheltered from the wind so, while the temperature was still below freezing, he was warmer. Kicking his feet out in front of the chair, he crossed his ankles and scowled at the toes of his boots, trying to come to terms with what he’d just learned.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there when the light crunch of footsteps on gravel and ice caught his attention. Looking up, he saw someone in a hot pink jacket approaching. The bulky coat and the hood pulled up over her head kept him from seeing much about her but he liked the way she walked. She strode with confident steps despite the somewhat treacherous footing of the icy gravel driveway. His eyes never left her as she came closer, reached the foot of the porch and made her way up the steps. He pulled his feet out of her way and watched as she walked by, going to the door as if he wasn’t there. She knocked, the door was opened by the enforcer stationed there who invited her inside. It irked him that she hadn’t even said hello on her way past.
Matt frowned. Why did it bother him so much that she hadn’t even acknowledged him? He really shouldn’t care. He had enough to think about without adding her odd behavior to the mix. He pushed her out of his mind and stood. Wandering around the house, he headed back to Steve and Jade’s cabin for a little while. Just until he could get his head on straight. He’d reached the rear of the house, but not yet made it to the stretch of trees separating the two residences, when he heard the back door of the house open.
“Matthew Jayson Walker, what do you think you’re doing” His mother’s voice pulled Matt from his thoughts. “Why are you out here freezing instead of spending time with your family?” The tiny woman who had raised him stood with her hands on her hips, waiting for an answer.
He looked at her a moment then looked away. “I’m just not good company right now, Mom. I need to be alone for a little while.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she watched him for a moment. “They told you, didn’t they?”
He glanced at her then looked away again. “Yeah. I don’t know how it got past me. How could I have missed it?”
“Now you listen to me and listen good.” Her voice was low but hard. “You are not responsible for what happened to your sister. It’s not your fault she kept it to herself, either. You had your own life and your own troubles. What matters now is that we do everything we can to support her and help her to heal.”
“She seems to be doing well enough.” He couldn’t look at his mother. The guilt wouldn’t let him.
“She is, mostly. But I can see she still has a hard time sometimes. We can love her and show her that we don’t see her as a victim or weak. She’s stronger than any of us gave her credit for and she deserves to know it.”
Matt had no words so he just nodded.
“Now, you’ve been out here more than an hour and she’s going to notice soon. I’ll give you another five minutes to get your shit together and come back inside. If you’re not back by then I’m sending her after you. I don’t think you want that, do you?”
“No,” he glanced at her again. “Just give me a minute. I’ll be in in a couple.”
“All right.” She turned on one booted heel and went back inside.
Matt sat on the rough wooden porch step and dropped his head into his hands. He took a deep breath and tried to shove the turmoil of his emotions down. He didn’t want to make JV feel bad. He didn’t want to make her have to relive her horror just because it was fresh in his mind. After taking several deep breaths and letting them out slowly, he was able to draw on the calm focus that let him control the cat inside him. He held on tight to that as he went inside. The warm air hit him as he stepped through the back door. He knew he’d been out there a long time but he hadn’t realized how cold he was until the warmth hit him. He pulled off his outer layer and hung it up before joining everyone else. He couldn’t paste a smile on his face but he was at least able to keep from letting his unhappiness show.
In the kitchen, he found his mother, Kim, and Tina, Steve’s mother, serving desserts and making sure there was enough for everyone to drink. Walking up behind his mom, he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a tight hug. She patted the arm across her chest with one hand, letting him know she wasn’t upset with him, while she continued to talk to Tina. After a moment, he released her and moved into the main room where the Khan and Karhyn were still seeing visitors. He stood for a moment, watching them and the best description for it was holding court. They were there letting people come to them and pay their respects. While it might not fit in modern society in general, it wasn’t inaccurate for clan life. In effect, the Khan and Karhyn were the king and queen of the clan. Everyone had to respect them, or fear them, in order for pack structure to work. Looking around, he didn’t see Steve, but Jade was once more on the sofa beside Rebecca. He caught her eye and tipped his head toward the back of the house, hoping she’d come talk to him for a few minutes.
Can you give me a little bit? I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet. Her voice whispered through his mind. He nodded once and moved to where his father stood visiting with Mike, Steve’s father, and a couple other men that Matt didn’t recognize. He stood quietly, listening to the conversation without adding much for several minutes, until his father turned and looked at him.
“Why are you all flushed?”
“I needed some time to myself so I was outside a while.”
His father looked him up and down a moment, as if trying to discern what Matt wasn’t saying. “Had to have been a good while for you to get that cold, unless you forgot your hat.”
Matt shrugged, choosing to let his dad think he’d forgotten to dress for the weather rather than tell him he’d just been out that long, and why.
“You think you’d know better.” The older man gave a slight shake to his head. “You live where the weather’s worse than this.”
“I guess I just wasn’t thinking about it when I went out.”
“Take better care of yourself.” His dad patted him on the back then turned back to Mike. “I wasn’t prepared for as cold as it is here, were you? I always thought of Arizona as desert, not mountains and snow.”
“I wasn’t either.” Mike said. “But leave it to Steve to find someplace as beautiful as this to settle down and find a place for himself.”
Later that night, Steve, JV and Matt had retired to the cabin his sister shared with his best friend. Matt sat in the large recliner angled so he could see both the TV and the couple on the sofa.
“I don’t want to make you relive what you’ve been through. I don’t want to bring it all back for you, but I have one question. It’s one I really need to know the answer to,” Matt spoke slowly, trying to find the right words to say what he had to without upsetting his sister or her mate.
Steve sat sideways on the couch, one leg bent against the back with his foot planted in the seat, the other on the floor in front. JV sat in front of him with her legs curled to one side as she leaned against him. Looking at them, it might have looked like she was dependent on him for strength but Matt knew better. She sat on her own, choosing to lean on him for support and comfort. It was a subtle difference but one Matt could see.
“What is it?”
“Why? Why did you keep it to yourself? We would have been there for you. We would have helped you.”
She looked at the floor and took a deep breath. “The short answer is fear. Fear and shame. But it’s not that simple and it’s taken me a long time and some counseling to see that.”
“What do you mean it’s not that simple?” He watched her, waiting.
“You have to understand. I’d only recently gained my freedom. I loved being able to go somewhere and not have to ask permission or justify why, or even tell anyone if I didn’t want to. I knew if I went home and admitted what had happened, then I’d lose that. You’d all close ranks around me and I might never escape again. But it was more than that. I was ashamed that I’d let it happen. I’m a shifter. I should have been able to fight back, to get free, and I couldn’t. Even afterward when I couldn’t shift for a long time, it terrified me and shamed me. I felt like it was my punishment for not being able to fight my way free.”
He felt the hot sting of tears and didn’t fight them. Instead he looked down at his fists clenched in his lap then back up at her, letting the tears slide unhindered down his face.
“I hate that you went through it alone. I hate that you didn’t let us help you. I can’t understand why you did it now but I think it’s my own stubbornness. I keep thinking you should have, you should have and it does no good now.”
He looked back down at his hands. The short nails were digging into his palms leaving small red crescents of blood. He heard movement but didn’t look up until JV’s sweats brushed against his knees. He looked up and met her gaze. Her eyes were concerned but not terrified or even particularly sad. She knelt in front of him, took one of his hands in both hers and pulled it toward her. She forced his fingers to uncurl and looked at the palm of his hand.
“Stop this.” She looked up at his face, meeting his gaze. “Stop it right now. You are not to blame for what happened or how I chose to deal with it. It’s over and I’m healing. I’m not the same person I was before, and I’ll never be. I don’t want to be.” She looked back down at his hand and ran the tip of one finger over the quickly healing wounds still visible there. “This does no good. For anyone. We all have things we have to go through to get where we need to be. My attack was something I had to deal with to drive me to come after Steve.” She looked over to where he still sat on the couch. Her face softened and she smiled. “I can’t regret what I’ve found here. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy, but it’s over.” She looked him in the eye. “I need you to be okay with that.”
Matt turned his hand over and took one of her hands in his. “I’ll try. I can’t be right now but give me some time. I’ll try to be okay with it.” She squeezed his hand and smiled up at him. He was glad to see the smile reached her eyes, for a long time her smiles hadn’t. He knew, at least in part, Steve was why they did again. As much as he didn’t like the idea of JV with someone as old as he and Steve, he understood some of it now. Aside from the mating instinct that was. He’d never felt it himself, not even with Connie, who he’d loved with all his heart, but he believed in it.
His chest ached as he thought of Connie. He missed her. She’d been gone two years and he still felt her loss every day. He missed what they almost had, the family they’d almost been when the accident had killed her and their baby.
“I know that look.” JV said from where she still knelt in front of him. “It’s not me you’re thinking about anymore.” She squeezed his hand again. “I hope you find your own mate someday. Sooner rather than later would be good.”
Matt gave her a rueful smile. “I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
“Ready don’t have nothing to do with it,” Steve said from the sofa. “When you find her that will be all that matters. You and her.” He held one hand out towards JV. She went without a word and curled back on the sofa in front of him, letting him wrap his arms around her as she leaned up and kissed his cheek.
Seeing his sister and his best friend so happy together made him forget the anger he’d had when he’d first found out she was with him. He’d been angry at Steve for taking advantage of her, though it was nowhere near what had happened. In fact, he’d stayed away from her for a long time to keep that from happening. Matt respected that. Now, he just had to come to terms with his new knowledge. She obviously had and that was what was most important.
Alexandria walked up the roughhewn stairs and past the man sitting on the cut log style bench on the Khan’s front porch. She didn’t know who he was and though something about him intrigued her, the scowl on his face was enough to make her keep her distance. She didn’t need to get involved with anyone else’s drama. She had enough going on in her life without adding to it. At the door she knocked, doing her best to ignore the man sitting just a few feet away as she waited to be let inside. She hoped he didn’t see her glance darting to him. There was just something about him that called to her. The door opened and one of the enforcers let her in. Bobby, she thought his name was, but she wasn’t sure. Inside was warm, uncomfortably so with her coat on. She shrugged it off and looked around for where to put it.
“I’ll take that.” A boy a little younger than herself stepped forward and took the hot pink coat. “We’re putting them in the bedroom.” Alex didn’t recognize him but her nose told her he was part of the clan. She surrendered the jacket and looked around. This was the first time she’d ever come to the clan leaders house alone. Usually she came with her parents, but this year her dad was sick and while he wasn’t exactly bedridden, he wasn’t doing very much either. She was glad it was winter, and there was a limited amount that had to be done at home.
Deciding there was nothing to do but suck it up and act her age, Alex approached the Khan.
“Merry Christmas, sir.”
He looked at her a second. “Merry Christmas, Alexandria.” He looked around. “Where’s your folks?”
“At home, Dad’s not feeling well.”
“Is everything all right?” He was instantly concerned.
“Yes, sir.” She gave him a forced smile. “As good as can be expected. He’s not a young man anymore and his heart isn’t what it once was.”
He lifted one side of his mouth. “It works that way sometimes. We can’t avoid the ravages of time. It effects some of us more strongly than others. How’s the ranch? Are you managing things all right, or do you need some help?”
“I’m doing okay. It’s not too bad this time of year, and I’ve been able to handle it on my own.”
“I don’t want you working yourself sick. If you need some help, I don’t care what kind, don’t hesitate to call.” He gave her a stern look. “I mean it.”
Alex said she would, wished him a happy new year and moved on. She knew it was his job to make sure everyone in the clan was safe and secure. Happiness he couldn’t guarantee but he was a good leader and would do what he could to help where she needed it. She had no doubt. She joined the line filing past the Khan’s wife, who was also his mate. It wasn’t a long line but it moved slowly, giving Alex a chance to look around. There were several people she didn’t recognize, and from the scent in the room, more than one who wasn’t clan, though they were Kitsune.
A woman Alex didn’t know appeared from the hallway and went to sit beside the Karhyn, surprising Alex. She didn’t speak, she didn’t ask permission, she just sat down as if she belonged there. Alex wondered who she was. The line moved until Alex stood in front of the alpha female of the pack.
“Merry Christmas, Madam.” Alex said keeping her eyes downcast so the Karhyn wouldn’t feel challenged. It was a little difficult to be deferent while standing with the Alpha seated, but she did her best.
“Merry Christmas, Alexandria, it’s good to see you. How are you doing?”
“I’m good.” Alex was surprised that the Karhyn cared enough to ask.
“How’s the ranch? And your parents? I don’t see them here.”
Alex flushed. She had no idea that the clan leaders knew her name much less knew what was going on in her life. “It’s good.” She told the Karhyn about her father’s illness, and the other woman leaned in, obviously listening.
“What’s wrong with your dad?” the new woman asked.
Rebecca turned and motioned to the woman next to her. The woman who’d just asked about her father. “Have you met our Shaku’s new mate?”
“No.” Alex looked at the woman with a new understanding. The Shaku was the head of clan security and lived here, close to the Khan and Karhyn, so they would naturally be friends, or Alex at least hoped living that close they would be friends. It would suck to have to live so close and interact so often with someone you didn’t get along with.
“This is JV, she’s been here for a couple months now. She and the Shaku have just announced their engagement.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Alex offered her hand to the new woman.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Alexandria is it?”
“It is, but I go by Alex.”
“Alex. I like that. It’s nice to meet you.” She smiled and seemed genuine. “Come over here and talk to me a moment.” She looked at Rebecca for a second, and when the Karhyn nodded JV stood and led Alex to a somewhat empty corner of the room. “Tell me more about your dad, what's wrong with him?”
Alex explained about her father’s heart condition, that he seemed to have the flu and she was worried about him.
“And there’s been no clan healer to help him.” JV concluded.
Alex shrugged. “No, no healer but I’m not sure if one would be able to help, he’s not exactly one of us.”
JV frowned. “Oh, you mean he’s a normal human.” She tilted her head to one side. “I’ve never tried to heal a human, but if you’d like I can come over and try.”
“You’re a healer?” Alex felt her eyes go wide.
“I am, though I’m not very strong yet,” JV shrugged.
“I’ll take any help you can give us. I don’t want to lose my dad.”
“I’ll do what I can. I assume Rebecca knows how to contact you?” JV tilted her head toward the Karhyn.
“I’m sure she does and if she doesn’t, she knows how to get a hold of my folks for sure.”
“Good. I’m sure I’ll be in touch in the next day or so and go look at your dad.”
“I’ll be waiting.” She went and asked the boy who’d taken her coat for it back. While she realized she’d been nervous about coming alone, but she was glad she had. With her coat back, she left, noticing the man on the porch was gone and wishing she’d gotten to see him again.
The next morning, while Alex worked on feeding the animals, her cell phone rang. Struggling to take her glove off, she was a little breathless when she answered the unknown number.
“Is this Alex?” A voice asked over the line, one that seemed vaguely familiar.
“Yes.” She hesitated to say more, not knowing who was one the line.
“My name is JV, we spoke yesterday.”
“Oh, yes. I remember you.” Her heart jumped. She hoped this new member of the pack could help her father.
“I’m free this afternoon, if that’s a good time. Steve will bring me out and I can take a look at your dad.”
“That would be great.” She cringed when she remembered that she’d forgotten to tell her mother of the possible visit. Too late now, she’d go up and let her know as soon as she finished with the animals. “Do you need directions?”
“No, Steve says he knows the way.”
“All right, I guess we’ll see you this afternoon?”
“We’ll be there around two o’clock if that’s okay.”
“Perfect.” It gave her only a little while to finish feeding and let her mom know, but she didn’t care she was going to get as much help for her dad as she could. “I’ll see you then.” They rang off and Alex hurried to finish with the horses. She’d already checked on the cattle so once she finished in the barn, she was done until evening.
Stepping out of the barn into the cold wind, Alex hunched her shoulders and rubbed her gloved hands together as she hurried to her truck. It wasn’t all that far to her parents’ house but if she walked it, she’d only have to walk back later to get the truck. She hopped inside and made the short trip, then rushed through the cold wind up the front steps of the house she’d grown up in. Stomping her feet on the steps and porch to knock off any mud she opened the door and let herself in.
“Mom?” she called as she toed off her boots next to the door.
“In here,” her mother’s voice came from the kitchen at the back of the house. She headed back. In the kitchen she found her mother stirring a steaming pot on the stove.
“Stew?” Alex sat on one of the stools at the bar.
“Yep, and rolls.” Her mother opened the oven to check the bread. Alex’s stomach rumbled. “Sounds like you could use some, too.”
“I’d love some,” she paused, “but I have to confess, I didn’t just come up for some hot food.”
“What’s up, dear?” Jolene turned and looked at her.
“Well, when I went to the Kahn’s yesterday they asked about you and Dad. I was honest and told them Dad’s not doing too well.” She looked up from where she’d been watching her fingers against the counter top. “Did you know the pack has a new healer?”
“No, I didn’t. He must be new.”
“She, she’s the Shaku’s mate.”
“I didn’t know he’d mated, either.”
“Not many did, apparently. Anyway, she asked me about Dad yesterday and said she’d like to try to help.”
“That’s nice but I’m not sure how much she can do.”
“That’s what I told her, but she wants to try anyway. They’ll be here about two.” Her mother looked up sharply.
“That’s in an hour, why didn’t you say so sooner?”
“I forgot last night, and I didn’t think she’d be here so soon, but she called while I was feeding the horses and said they are coming this afternoon.”
“They?” She mother looked around the house with panic in her eyes. “Who all is coming?”
“I think just JV and the Shaku, but I’m not sure.” Alex knew her mother. She was panicked because she didn’t think the house was clean enough. Alex couldn’t see a thing out of place except the dishes her mother was using to make lunch. “Mom, they’re not coming to inspect your housekeeping. I’m sure no one would care if the place was a disaster.”
“I care.” Her mother bustled around the kitchen loading the few dishes in the sink into the dishwasher and getting them out of sight before wiping down the already spotless counters again.
Even though she was expecting them soon, Alex’s heart started racing when she heard the truck pull in to the yard. She slid off the stool where she’d been watching her mother panic and went to answer the door. She opened the door while JV and her mate were climbing the steps.
“Come on in.” She held the door open for them. “Can I take your coats?” She was the kind of her host her mother had taught her to be. Mom would slap the shit out of her if Alex embarrassed her by not being welcoming enough, especially in her mother’s house and to someone so high in the clan. She hung up their coats and hats as her mother came in.
“Oh, my. Thank you so much for coming out to see us.”
“It’s no problem, Jolene,” the Shaku said. “Jade isn’t sure she can help since Randy isn’t a shifter like us. She’s still learning how to use her talent so there’s a bit she’s not sure of yet, but she wants to try.”
“It’s the least I can do,” JV said with a shrug. “It can’t hurt to try.” She smiled at the older woman and Alex liked her even more than she had when she’d first met her the day before.
“I have a few questions for you before I try to help your husband. If you don’t mind?” JV’s eyes flicked to Alex then back to her mother.
“Of course, of course. Why don’t we go in the living room and have a seat?” They all followed Jolene into the living room. JV and her mate took their seats. Alex’s mother looked at her then flicked her eyes to their guests. Drinks she mouthed. Alex knew what she meant.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Alex offered. She knew her mother normally would but couldn’t now because JV’s questions were for her, not Alex.
“Coffee, please,” the Shaku said.
“Just water for me,” Was JV’s reply.
“Cream? Sugar?” Alex asked before getting the drinks.
“Mom? Can I get you anything?”
Jolene shook her head as she shifted in her recliner. It was angled toward the sofa where the couple sat.
“I’ll be right back.” She fetched the drinks and returned a few minutes later. Passing out drinks, she listened in on the conversation.
“You said you two are mated right? Sealed?” JV asked.
“Yes, we’ve been mated for more than twenty years.”
“Hmm.” She was quiet for a moment, “I don’t know if it will matter, but it may help. I’ve never tried to heal a non-human, mated to one of us or not.”
“I guess it doesn’t hurt to try.” Jolene wrung her hands in her lap. “Does it?”
“I can’t see that it would.” JV looked at Alex then back to Jolene, “Can I see him?”
“Oh, of course.” Jolene stood and smoothed her skirt. Alex watched her mother fuss with her hair as she waited for the others to get to their feet. “He’s upstairs, come on up.” Alex followed them, curious if the woman would be able to help her dad.
“He’s been in bed all day.” Jolene wrung her hands. “There’s not a lot of room in the bedroom.” Alex knew her mother was right. They would never all fit in there. If they did there would never be enough room to move.
“No problem,” the Shaku said. “I’ll stay down here.” Her mother glanced at her and Alex knew she would be missing what happened when someone was healed. “I’ll stay with you.” She waited until the two women had left and sat where her mother had been. She didn’t know what to stay.
“How long has your dad been sick?” the enforcer asked from his seat on the sofa.
“A little over a week this time.”
“This time?” He lifted one brow.
“Yeah. He was sick for a few days last month.”
“Who takes care of the place when he’s laid up like this?”
“I do.” She thought the answer should be obvious. It was only the two of them running the ranch.
“Just you? You can’t possibly do it all.”
“I’m all there is.” She shrugged. She didn’t know why he found it so hard to believe. She hadn’t thought about how much work it was, just that it had to be done. He blinked and watched her for several seconds.
“No more.” He said with a frown.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“First, call me Steve. Second, from now on, when Ralph falls sick, you’re to let me or Nick know. We’ll make sure you get some help.”
“You don’t need to do that.” She wasn’t sure why she was protesting, she would be glad to get some help
“We do. It’s part of taking care of the clan.” He met her gaze. “You don’t need to be working yourself to death any more than he needs to suffer.” Alex took a deep breath and let it out slowly, using it as an excuse to not say anything for a moment or two.
“All right.” She heard footsteps on the stairs and turned to look toward the staircase to see her mother and JV coming down.
“How did it go?” she asked once the pair reached the floor.
“I couldn’t do much,” JV shook her head. “I tried but it wouldn’t work.” She looked disappointed. Steven looked from his mate to Jolene, a slight crease between his brows.
“You said the two of you are mated, right?”
“Yes, we have been for twenty-seven years, why?” Jolene looked at Steve, then to JV, hopeful.
Steve held up one hand, “I don’t have a lot of experience with matings and even less with human/shifter couples so don’t get your hopes up.” His eyes shifted to his mate. “Can you sense when he’s hurt or ill? Through your bond I mean.”
Jolene frowned. “Well, yeah, of course.”
Steve looked down then back up. “JV and I can share energy back and forth to each other to speed healing or help when the other is tired, can you do anything like that?”
“Yes, it’s limited as to how much Randy can give me because he just doesn’t have as much reserve as I do.” She watched the Shaku for a moment, “Does this mean something?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he said, the crease on his brow deepening. He turned to JV. “I don’t know if it will work, but what do you think of trying to heal her? You make sure she’s in top condition then hopefully she’s better able to shift energy to him to help his body repair.”
Wonder crossed JV’s face. “I don’t know if it will work, but I’m willing to try.” She turned to Jolene, “That is if you are.”
“Of course. I’ll try almost anything.” Jolene jumped at the chance to help her mate.
“Let’s sit back down and I’ll do what I can.” JV motioned to the sofa and chairs where Alex and Steve still stood. Once everyone was seated once again, JV took charge.
“Just sit back and relax, this shouldn’t take long.” Alex watched as her mother did as instructed. JV closed her eyes and they all fell silent for several minutes. Finally, after what felt like an hour but in reality had been less than five minutes, JV took a deep breath and let it out in a rush as she opened her eyes. “Wow.” She blinked several times. “There was more there to be done than I thought there would be.”
“Is she sick, too?” Alex’s heart beat faster. Was she in danger of losing both her parents?
“No, she’s just a little run down.” JV turned back to Alex’s mother. “Are you feeling better?”
“Some, yes.” Jolene sat up and moved to the edge of her seat.
JV rubbed one hand over her face. Steve smoothed his hand over her back once then took her hand in his.
“Let me guess,” JV said. “You and Alex have been trying to keep everything going smoothly while your husband has been ill?” she looked at Jolene.
“Yes, but it’s the middle of winter, the work load is low. It’s not that bad.” Jolene did her best to explain.
“I’m not blaming you.” JV waived one hand in the air. “And I have a point, I promise.” Jolene visibly relaxed she nodded and scooted back in her seat a little. “On top of the normal work load being carried by two instead of three, you’re also taking care of him, nursing him. While I have no doubt you don’t mind, it’s still work.” She headed off the argument Alex saw her mother forming before she had a chance to get it out. “Have you thought to eat more than normal since he fell ill?”
Jolene shook her head and looked confused.
“Have you had a chance to shift and run since then?”
“No, I didn’t want to leave Randy alone.”
“If you had said something, I would have come over, Mom.”
“I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I’m not placing blame,” JV said with another wave of her hand. “I was just pointing some things out so you could see them. You’ve taken on another person’s job, so to speak, plus caring for an ill person, yet you’ve not added to your intake of calories to fuel the extra expenditure. It’s no wonder you’re tired and run down, or that you have no extra energy to shift to Randy to help him recover.”
Jolene blinked several times. “I never even thought about it. Now I feel bad that I could have done more to help him. “
“Don’t. There’s no use. You can’t go back and change anything. All you can do is do better from here on out. Here’s my recommendation: eat every two to three hours during the day. I’m sure you know that proteins are better than carbs for us.”
“And I recommend you shift. You don’t have to go out and run, just shifting and wandering around the house or even curling up on the bed next to your mate for a while will work. But do it every three to four days. The process of shifting kick starts our healing. If you had shifted recently your body would have told you. You need more fuel.”
“I can do that. Is there anything else?”
“I want you to let us know as soon as Randy gets sick next time, or as soon as anything else happens from now on.” Steve put in. “If the Kahn had known Randy was ill, he would have sent someone to help right away. There’s no reason the two of you should have to do everything around here.” He shot a scowl in Alex’s direction. She already knew he wasn’t happy that she’d done all the ranch work on her own. She’d taken care of the animals. Her mom had dealt with stuff around the house. But the way she saw it, it was their place and their job to take care of it. She hated admitting she needed help with anything.
“We’ll call,” her mother promised. “And thank you so much for coming out and helping. It means a lot.”
“We’re happy to help,” JV said standing. “We’ll let you get back to your day. I know you weren’t planning on visitors.” She tugged Steven to his feet. “Just remember to eat and call if you need something. Not only are we clan, but neighbors too.”
“I will, I promise.” Jolene stood and walked the guests to the door. Alex followed staying quiet and standing out of the way until just before they left, Steve pinned her with a look.
“What time do you start in the morning?”
She hesitated for just a second. “I usually get to the barn about six.”
“Good,” he gave a sharp nod.” I’ll have someone there to help you.” He said goodbye once more and followed JV to the truck.
Alex watched as they pulled out of the yard then followed her mother to the kitchen.
“See, I told you they wouldn’t care if the house is perfect. They wanted to check on you and Dad.”
Her mother ignored the comment about the house and went about pulling things from the fridge and pantry.
“I’m glad they came,” Jolene said. “Even if I wasn’t quite ready for them.”
Alex watched as the pile of food grew to nearly cover the kitchen bar. “What are you making now?” She couldn’t figure out what took potatoes, onions, a raw roast and sandwich bread.
“I’m starting dinner and making myself something to eat now, you want something?” her mother said without stopping as she moved around the room.
After JV’s first visit to Alex’s dad, she stopped by at least once a week for the next couple months. Even after Randy had recovered and was back to work. She spent time with Jolene and Randy, but it was Alex who loved her visits the most. She soon discovered that while she and JV didn’t have a whole lot in common, they got along well and enjoyed each other’s company.
“So tell me, where around here is a good place to get married?” JV asked Alex one afternoon in February. They were in Alex’s kitchen, JV sat in a dining room chair watching while Alex moved around the kitchen, cooking.
“I don’t know,” Alex said automatically. She continued slicing mushrooms as she thought about the question for a second. “Well, it depends. What time of year? Indoor or outdoor?”
“Late May, early June, and either works.”
“Well, you can check with the churches, if that’s what you want. Or there’s the gazebo, the park, or if you want to go really big, you could see about the dome.”
JV laughed. “No. It’s already going to be bigger than I want. Let’s not encourage my mother with the dome.”
“Too big already, how big you looking at?”
“Steve says because of his position we should expect about half the clan.”
“Wow.” Alex stopped slicing for a moment and looked at JV, she knew she was staring but couldn’t help it.
“Plus our families.” JV added.
“What about your friends?” Alex went back to cutting the ingredients for the soup she was making.
“I don’t have any friends,” JV said with a shrug. “At least I didn’t used to. I’m starting to make some here though.” She looked at Alex for a second. “As for Steve, most of his friends are here, clan or not, except for my brother, and I’m putting him on my side, because he’s related to me.” she grinned with an expression that Alex was learning meant she was up to something.
“Have you thought about the lodge in Greer?”
“What’s Greer?” JV frowned. “You’ve got to remember, I’m new here. Four months isn’t long enough to know all the little nooks or crannies you have hiding about.”
Back in Denver, Matt went about his normal routine. He went to work and came home much as he had been doing for the last two years. Occasionally, he would go out with some guys from work, but that was about it. He didn’t have much of a social life and hadn’t in more than two years. Not since Connie’s death. He certainly hadn’t dated since then. Up until now, the idea had made his stomach hurt. It took him a few weeks but he’d come to terms with JV’s past. He had finally realized he was less troubled by what had happened to her. He hadn’t dismissed it, it was horrible and traumatic. She’d gone through it alone and that bothered him. She’d suffered through one of the most horrific things he could think of without any support, and that tore him up inside. Even with the stress of work and the worry about JV on his mind, the girl in the pink jacket kept popping into his head. He couldn’t figure out why. He hadn’t noticed anything outstanding or special about her. He hadn’t even spoken to her, much less learned her name, yet he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
Before he knew it, May had arrived and with it the vacation he’d scheduled to go down and see his JV. Two whole weeks. His parents would be joining them later, but he got to spend the first week with Steve and JV without them. In some ways, it would be like they were kids again. In others, so very different. Connie wouldn’t be there, and JV and Steve had never been together when they were growing up. As he packed the last of his clothes and got ready to leave for the airport, it dawned on him that he was more excited about this trip than he had been about anything in a long time. He was headed out the door when his cell rang.
“Hey, what’s up?” he asked seeing it was JV.
“I just wanted to double check what time your flight lands.”
“3:25, but I told you, you don’t have to pick me up. I can rent a car.”
“Nope. A car for two weeks is gonna be way too expensive. Besides, I’m already in Phoenix. It’s really no big deal.”
“If you’re sure.” He loaded his suitcase into the shuttle van that had arrived to get him.
“I’m sure. Now, shut up and get on the plane.” She laughed.
“I’m not even to the airport yet. I’m just getting in the shuttle.”
“Then do that. Then get on the plane. I’m waiting for a hug.”
He smiled. She sounded happy. “Will do.”
“See you when you get here.”
He disconnected and pocketed the phone before climbing into the van for the ride to the airport.
Getting off the plane in Phoenix wasn’t much different from anywhere else. Matt had been to more than a few airports and while the layout and decor may change from city to city, all the basics were there. Overpriced restaurants and kiosk stores for souvenirs and last minute drinks, entertainment or toiletries, an abundance of bathrooms, security guards, and long lines. He knew better than to expect JV anywhere near the gate and took his carry on with him down to the baggage claim area. He hadn’t checked anything, but it was as good a place to meet someone as any. Right now there would be a lot of people waiting for the bags to make to the carousel, but he should be able to find JV, even if he had to resort to looking for her scent.
He needn't have worried. When he got to the baggage claim area it was impossible to miss JV. She was standing to one side with Rebecca and another girl about their age. The Karhyn, her belly nicely rounded with her advancing pregnancy, and the stranger were standing calmly, looking around. But Matt could tell from the way JV jumped and waved that she had spotted him and was trying to get his attention.
Shaking his head, he couldn’t keep the grin off his face at how different she seemed. She looked happy and well adjusted. Far better than she had in years and again he wondered how he hadn’t noticed how quiet and withdrawn she had become. He was just over halfway to her when she broke into a run and met him part way, the other girls trailed behind. He wasn’t sure if they didn’t want to be left alone or just wanted to be in on the reunion.
JV threw herself against him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Wrapping his arms around her waist he hugged her, lifting her off her feet for a moment before setting her down.
“You look good.” He wrapped one hand back around the handle on his suit case.
“Thanks.” She looked down at his bag. “Is that all you have?”
“Then let’s get out of here.” Her eyes scanned the airport, rarely resting on one thing for long.
“How did you manage to get the three of you here without some kind of escort?” He looked around for one of the clan’s enforcers, expecting someone to be nearby to keep an eye on the Karhyn.
“Are you saying we’re so much trouble we need a chaperon?” Rebecca asked.
“No.” He glanced at the clan leader who was closer to his sister’s age than his. He’d never asked but he was pretty sure she was a little younger than JV. “But Steve told me a little about the trouble you had with your first clan.”
A shadow passed over Rebecca’s eyes and she glanced around, nervous.
“I don’t mean to upset you, I just expected you to have someone around to protect you.”
Rebecca grinned and gave him a cunning look. “But I do.”
“Who?” he looked around again, trying to find who he’d missed. He flinched when JV kicked him in the shin.
Matt frowned and turned to look at his sister. “You? You’re an enforcer now?”
She grinned, obviously pleased at having kept it from him. “I am.”
“And Steve’s okay with this?”
“Well, as entertaining as this is. I’m ready to get out of here. I’m done with the crowds.” The girl Matt didn’t know put in.
Matt turned and gave the girl his full attention for the first time. He hadn't been wrong, she looked a little younger than JV, maybe a couple years. She had chocolate brown eyes and long dark hair that hung in a smooth waterfall down her back. He wasn't sure how long it was, but long enough it didn't fall over her shoulders when she turned her head.
"I'm sorry, I don't know you. I'm Matt. I'm sure you already know why I've come." He offered one hand. She looked at it for a long moment before taking it.
When her skin touched his Matt felt a jolt of something he couldn't explain. Something he'd never felt before. Doing his best not to let anything show he shook her hand, then released it. "It’s nice to meet you."
The odd zap that raced up her arm when he shook her hand startled Alex. She had no idea what it was but it didn't hurt. It was oddly pleasant. She looked him up and down a moment.
“It’s nice to meet you, too." There was something familiar about him but she wasn't sure...then it hit her. "You were visiting over Christmas weren't you?"
A crease appeared between his eyes. "Yeah, did we me then? Somehow I can't believe I would forget you."
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