Ice and fire filled him, pouring into him like a strange layered cocktail in which each section created a different color and experience, none of them good. Silver Moon struggled to wade through the fog of pain, trying to remember what had dragged him under in the first place. Nothing made sense as he fought against the murkiness of his thoughts. A spike in his memory forced his awareness back.
Wait. Anthony. His mate. He had to be strong for Anthony. Memories flitted at the edge of his awareness, butterflies of cognizance he could almost see and capture. He jerked as jolts of pain zapped him with the frequency of an electric current. Images of Hera standing over him flashed into his head, as prior events played through his mind like a movie.
Since choosing Anthony as his mate, life hadn’t been boring. He could use a little more monotony. He longed for a day when the morning traffic, or ordering enough booze to stock the bar after a full moon, were his biggest problems.
When Hera told him to accept some of Anthony’s power for his mate’s sake, he had anticipated enduring a rush of energy, maybe some bits of pain. Foolish idiot. Even after dealing with Zeus, he hadn’t expected Hera’s deception. He gritted his teeth against the agony crawling through his veins, a molten lava of energy burning him from inside out. In his head he chanted Anthony’s name, trying to remember why he must endure. His mate. His purpose. His life. For Anthony he would survive. Years of struggle building his pack and then holding onto his alpha status had forged his solid will. He didn’t become the leader of a wolf pack by picking daisies and weaving flower crowns. He wouldn’t cave now no matter the cost to sanity or health. If he failed, stronger gods could kill Anthony with ease. He couldn’t allow that to happen.
He clenched his jaws against the building scream, grinding his molars. A visit to the dentist would be required if he survived. He curled his fingers, trying to prevent grabbing onto something and causing damage. Claws pushed through his human fingertips, stabbing into his palms and sending rivulets of blood trickling to the floor. Silver arched his back, releasing the scream as agony spiked down his spine, slicing into each vertebra. The urge to transform and run away snapped at him with hungry wolf teeth, but he couldn’t abandon his mate, his love, and his life. Tears filled his eyes before trickling away.
“Shh, I’ve got you,” Anthony’s soothing voice reached through the thorny ropes of magic slicing at his essence.
“A-Anthony.” He almost didn’t recognize the rough grinding sound as his own voice. He clung to a sandy rock of sanity among an ocean of pain. Silver had to grab onto thoughts of his mate if he wished to survive. He forced his eyes open to catch sight of his mate, his reason for living.
“You’ll be fine, my love. You’re doing great,” Anthony whispered in his ear. Soft lips brushed across his cheek as Anthony slid down beside him. “We’ll get through this together.”
Together. There lay their true power. With his mate at his side, they could overcome anything. Already they had survived mutants, crazy scientists, and evil fae kings. A mere godhead couldn’t destroy them.
From the stress on Anthony’s face, that bitch Hera hadn’t given Silver all of his mate’s pain. She’d only doubled the agony. How much power would this give Anthony? Would his beautiful soon-to-be-god have more magic than he could physically handle? If it were the last thing he did, Silver would make sure Hera paid for torturing them. Zeus would never hurt his favorite descendent, not like this. He might not trust the king of the gods, but he never questioned Zeus’ affection for Anthony.
To prevent Anthony from becoming a half-ass godling, Silver had to accept as much power as possible. If Silver died from magic overload, would Anthony survive? He had blocked his bond with the pack to stop them from interfering with the transformation. The pack would come running if they sensed their alpha’s pain. He had to be strong enough for all of them. That was his job as alpha.
“Open the connection!” Anthony’s voice spoke in his head.
“Why?” After spending the last few hours actively stopping his pack from any kind of discomfort, what reason would he have to release it now?
“If you spread the pain through the pack, it will hurt less. We can’t get through this alone. It will drive us insane.”
That Anthony was telepathically speaking instead of saying the words out loud told Silver his mate’s energy was waning.
Silver’s protective nature didn’t allow him to purposely hurt those weaker than him, but he didn’t know how much more of this he could handle. If only he could pass out until it was all over.
“We need them,” Anthony persisted.
No alpha should have to choose between his mate’s health and his pack. Silver hesitated. Another wave of prickly stabbing pain swept through him. Hera hadn’t said how long this would last and Silver was reaching the last of his energy reserves. His death would hurt the pack more than sharing the surges of energy among all the shifters. Would the other mates be affected?
“How much longer?” He couldn’t force more than a few words through their mental link. The effort took more focus than his scrambled senses could achieve. Tremors spread through his body, and his teeth began to chatter as shock set in.
“I don’t know.” He could almost taste the despair in Anthony’s thoughts. For once there would be no miracle rescue from their situation. They were in this alone unless Silver called on his people. Until that moment Silver had held out hope that Zeus would magically arrive in time to ease Anthony into his next level of power.
“We can make it.” He tried to infuse confidence in his buffering of Anthony’s mood, but he could barely keep their connection and willingly accept the pain. He hoped there wouldn’t be long-term ramifications. Their bond would be damaged if he began to attach negative emotions to mind-linking with his mate.
“We need help,” Anthony insisted.
Silver no longer had the energy to deny the truth, but he tried to put up some resistance. “I can’t.”
He pushed his sense of pack loyalty and protector instincts to Anthony to get him to agree. Foolishly he thought he’d succeeded until Anthony’s next words filtered into his increasingly fuzzy thoughts.
“If you don’t, we’ll die or go insane.”
Anthony’s sorrow washed through him. He couldn’t pry his eyelids open to see if his mate was crying or not. He didn’t have the energy. Anthony cared for the pack, but he loved Silver more. If there were any way to spare Silver from this ordeal, Anthony would become an ordinary human. Not a single part of Silver doubted that. However they were in a war between gods and mutants, and Silver knew better than to give up any advantage. He hadn’t been a pack leader this long without learning strategy.
“As you wish, my love,” Silver capitulated.
Careful of overwhelming his pack, he opened his link to them in slow, careful increments. “We need help. Please share your strength.”
The instant connection crackling between him and his pack sent a welcoming jolt of support that shored up Silver’s flagging strength. In his head he saw the bonds between each member as glowing white strings holding each shifter to the pack through the call of his alpha powers and his connection with Anthony. Magic whispered between them, solidifying the links and thrumming with power. Unlike the aching intensity of the godhead magic, pack bonds were of nature and solidified by the world around them. The bond shimmered and stretched but not a single connection wavered.
“Please lend us your strength,” Silver whispered into his packmates’ minds, unwilling to pressure them into unwelcome agony but desperately needing them. Every single member responded back, not a single one tried to resist his call as they pulled at the edges of the pain ratcheting through his body. As if sensing Silver’s capacity had grown, more magic poured from Anthony to Silver to the Moon Pack in an unending stream of pulsing power. The pain dissipated to a dull throbbing level as the power to form a god spread across dozens of pack members. Each shifter took on some of their alpha’s burden as part of the pack price. As they took some more energy fed into the link.
A groan escaped Silver’s lips before darkness swallowed him whole.
Oliver Cornwell didn’t go out drinking often. The flashing lights and brutally pounding music always reminded him why he preferred nights spent in a quiet restaurant with good company and a fine glass of wine. However after his sex life reached a Sahara-level dry spell, he decided to try a different approach.
He glanced over at the handsome man lying on the pillow next to him. Even drunk he had excellent taste. Pushing away the urge to kiss the gorgeous stranger, he climbed out of bed while rubbing his pounding temples. He snatched up the first items of clothing his unsteady hands could find, then slid them on as he stumbled out of his bedroom. Although the jeans cradled his ass like proper club clothes, the hem of the shirt he had pulled on reached his thighs. He ignored the fit, more anxious to leave the bedroom than fuss over clothes.
Damn, he should have had better sense than to bring a one-night stand home. It’s like his drunken self had gleefully painted a target on his back in neon colors before placing cartoony “he’s here” arrows around him.
Anyone would think he had just become an assassin a few days ago instead of having a ten-year career as an enforcer of the wizard council. Idiot. A faint smile crossed his lips. Damn, he loved big strong men. Memories of his sexual partner’s strength had delicious shivers scampering down his spine.
Soon enough he would be faced with the results of his previous night’s bad decisions, but right now he wallowed in the silence of being the only one awake. Resolutely he pushed away the urge to go back and re-examine all those warm, hard muscles in further detail. He had more important things to concentrate on. Coffee.
His desperate, almost mindless, need for the rich bitter brew had him stumbling toward the kitchen. More than one ex had commented on Oliver’s zombielike mind-set before his first morning cup. Only one had had the gall to switch him to decaf. He still didn’t regret sending Phil to the hospital. Fucker deserved it.
Minutes later he had his elbows propped on the kitchen counter and his blurry gaze fixed on the slow drip, drip, drip of his coffeemaker. Even with magic he couldn’t hurry the brewing process along unless he wanted a horrible aftertaste. He contemplated buying one of those machines with all the bells and whistles, but none of the new versions had a carafe as large as the one currently taking over the entire corner of his kitchen counter. He didn’t have a lot of vices, but he relished his favorites.
His pounding head had reached the level of having its own rhythm section, and the newly expired painkillers he’d discovered in the back of his kitchen junk drawer hadn’t taken the edge off yet. He chugged more water, trying to rehydrate. A slight sting beneath his shirt had him rubbing his fingers across the spot on his shoulder. Memories flooded his hazy brain. What had seemed like a brilliant idea the night before struck him as stupid in the brutal morning light.
“Oh fuck, I’ve been marked,” he whispered. Shifter. He’d been marked by a shifter, and allowed it. He distinctly remembered his lover from last night asking before biting. For the first time since he’d reached adulthood, Oliver was awake before his first morning sip of coffee.
A whisper of sound was his only warning. Warm fingers trailed across the back of his neck before sliding forward beneath his shirt to brush against the newly discovered mark. He held back a whimper with iron control, but weakly leaned into the touch. Spikes of desire pierced his body. He groaned.
“Good morning, gorgeous.” The voice, rich and sinful as his morning brew, growled into his ear. Hot breath across his lobe had Oliver relaxing against the stranger who would be with him for the rest of his life. After all he had accepted the mark and mates were forever.
“Morning,” he muttered back, not daring to turn and face his future partner. His normally soft voice had a rough tone like a nubby fabric. No amount of throat clearing seemed to help. Coffee, his miracle cure, would fix that in a minute or two. Still, he couldn’t stop his spine from melting against the strong, warm body behind him. His mind spun in a sluggish hamster wheel circle as he tried to recall all the details about shifter mates. Not one to have regrets, Oliver mentally re-ordered his life to work around this new variable.
“I’m conducting a next morning regret check. Do you remember my name?” asked the same delicious voice layered with humor.
“Hmm.” Oliver nestled the back of his head against the firm chest behind him, his new favorite spot. He closed his eyes to block out the sneaky morning light that had slipped between his blinds. Focusing his limited attention, he tried to recall his companion’s introduction. It came to him after a few minutes of struggle. “Tim.”
Tim’s last name eluded Oliver, but at least he was confident about the first part. Considering his previously inebriated condition and a night of hazy passion-filled sex, he was rather proud of remembering a first name, or anything at all.
“Mm, good, you do remember.” Tim slid his warm hands up and down Oliver’s arms in long soothing strokes. As a wizard he really shouldn’t feel the compulsion to purr like a cat shifter. “Now for the bonus question. Do you remember what I am?”
Images from last night flashed through his head, sexy glimpses of their hot encounter overloaded Oliver’s quickly short-circuiting brain. Details of stuttering conversation, of backgrounds shared between touches, returned to his aching head.
“Wolf shifter, but you’re not one of a pack. You’re a lone wolf, aren’t you?” He knew the answer before he asked, but still didn’t know the reason behind it. Conversation tended to be short between drinks and sweat-soaked bodies.
Lone wolves were usually that for a reason. They were often the dregs of shifter society who were rejected by any proper pack for their crimes. Even misbehaving wolves could usually get some pack to take them in. Knowing this, Oliver couldn’t assign those traits to his new mate.
Last night Tim’s status hadn’t seemed like an important detail, but beneath the overly bright lights of his kitchen and Tim’s close proximity, his self-preservation instincts kicked in. What did he really know about the strange wolf shifter in his apartment, other than his skills in the bedroom? Oliver poured a cup of coffee, then took a desperate sip, hoping the caffeine would jumpstart his sluggish thinking. It was too early, and he was too hungover to deal with much else today. For a fleeting moment, he wished for a shifter metabolism. He doubted Tim suffered from a hangover.
“Are you going to share some of that coffee?” Tim asked, squeezing Oliver’s shoulders in an affectionate touch.
“Maybe the next pot.” He drained his cup, then refilled, not sparing his new mate a glance.
Tim laughed. “Stingy.”
The warmth left Oliver’s back, and Tim opened a few cabinets before he pulled out a coffee cup, then set it pointedly on the counter in front of Oliver. “Consider it part of your morning-after hospitality.”
“Fine, but don’t complain if you lose some fingers in the future,” Oliver snarled before pouring coffee into Tim’s cup. “I don’t have cream. Sugar is in the cabinet above you.”
“I take it black.” He pressed a kiss on Oliver’s cheek before picking up his mug.
Oliver glared at him over his shoulder but lost some of his ire at the sight of Tim’s sparkling eyes. “I’m not a morning person,” he grumbled before taking another sip.
“Really? I couldn’t tell.” Tim hid his smile with his mug, but Oliver knew when he was being laughed at.
He tried to step away, but Tim grabbed him gently around the waist, then pulled him close until they were snuggling again.
“Don’t rush off, I like you nearby,” Tim rumbled in Oliver’s ear, sending shivers down his spine. Tim kissed Oliver’s neck before simply holding him. They let silence fall between them as they sipped their morning brew. It was almost peaceful. Oliver relaxed, something he rarely did with other people.
“Do you want some more?” Oliver asked in his politest tone after draining his cup. His uppity aunt would’ve been proud of his manners, even if she hadn’t liked him any better than his parents.
“Are you sure it’s safe? I’ve seen mothers in front of their newly born pups who’ve looked less ferocious than you with your coffeepot,” Tim teased.
Oliver sniffed. “I’m not human before my coffee.”
“What about after? I mean I know you’re an animal in bed, but the spark between us wasn’t normal. Humans don’t usually produce actual sparks.” Tim’s eyes turned amber in the middle of his sentence as if his wolf wanted to get a better look at Oliver while they talked.
Oliver remained still, not wanting to antagonize Tim’s inner beast. He might not hang around Silver, but he’d learned enough over the past few years while working among shifters, to never challenge one unless he planned to win. Oliver tried to appear both strong enough to face Tim and submissive enough to not threaten his wolf half.
“I’m a wizard.” No sense in trying to hide it. He could reveal his past later after he quit his job. He couldn’t be an assassin with a mate. Tim would be too much collateral.
Tim took a large step backward. “You’re kidding?”
“Why would I kid about that?” Wizards had a bad enough reputation in the supernatural community that Oliver couldn’t imagine joking about being one. If they weren’t mates, he wouldn’t even have brought it up.
“No wonder you reek of magic. I thought maybe you worked in a magical building.” Oliver relaxed when Tim’s expression remained more curious than upset.
“I work in an architecture firm. My boss has a lot of magic so in some ways you are right.” Comparing his magic to Anthony’s was like comparing a gnat to an elephant, but to someone without magic, they were probably similar. Tim didn’t need to know of his other activities.
“Are you an architect?” Tim asked.
Oliver shook his head. His work with Anthony had actually become more interesting than killing people. He appreciated the challenge it provided, that shooting a poisonous dart into a neck didn’t.
“I set up wards on workstations and things like that. I also put protections on any of Anthony’s new buildings when they are owned by paranormals. I might eventually start my own warding company.”
Being an assassin didn’t bother Oliver, but soon he’d have to come up with something less hazardous to do for a living. He’d abandoned his pesky morality at age fifteen when he was assigned to kill a man for raising demons, but for the past two years, killing had lost its shiny allure and his assignments had become less palatable. His latest job to watch and possibly murder Anthony had him questioning the council for the first time in his life. He didn’t believe in proactive killing. Ending the life of someone who had committed unconscionable crimes was one thing. Murdering a man mated to a powerful shifter leader smacked of political bullshit.
He enjoyed working for Anthony, who had so many strands of magic wrapped around him that Oliver could sometimes barely breathe from the crackling power in the room.
“Do you enjoy it?” Tim asked. He nudged Oliver’s arm as if sensing he’d lost his attention.
“My job?” Oliver took a moment to untangle his mind from his assassin work when he realized Tim meant his work with Anthony.
“Poor sweetie, you’re not a morning person, are you?” Tim carded his fingers through Oliver’s hair in a gentle calming gesture.
Oliver ignored Tim’s mocking tone but leaned into his touch anyway when Tim began to massage his scalp. It had been too long since he’d last had anyone touching him with something approaching affection. He hummed at the sensation. He could get used to this.
“Are you sure you aren’t part cat?” Tim asked, continuing his rubbing.
“Not that my mother ever confessed.” Considering how uptight his mother was, he doubted she’d had sex with his father more than the one time necessary to have Oliver. His father was a cold man and rarely unbent long enough to give his only child a smile, much less spare any scraps of affection for his spouse. One of the many reasons he’d run away from home.
Tim’s warm laughter made Oliver smile. A smug part of Oliver couldn’t help the burst of pride in bonding with this gorgeous shifter.
“Hmm, I bet if you did a family tree, you’d find some sort of pretty kitty among your ancestors,” Tim argued.
Oliver sniffed. “If I have cat blood, it would be something big and vicious not little and cuddly. A tiger maybe.” He ignored the fact that the one tiger shifter he knew had a snuggly personality.
“Of course, my mistake. You are quite fierce.” Tim moved to face Oliver, then kissed his forehead.
“Mmhmm I am,” Oliver agreed, stepping closer as if basking in the sun. The wolf shifter granted affection freely as if they’d been together for much longer than one evening. He spoke the words to confirm his suspicions from the night before. “We’re mates, aren’t we?”
“Yes.” Tim hugged Oliver. “Destiny matched us together, and I refuse to lose you to any human, or I guess in your case wizard, squeamishness. So if you plan to fight the bond, you should think again.”
Oliver pushed at Tim’s chest to have him step back so he could see his face better. “I’m not squeamish, just surprised. I didn’t expect to meet my mate at a club.” Or ever.
With brutal self-denial, he shoved his worries behind his mental shields, saving his breakdown for later when he was alone and could lose it without witnesses. He might have concerns, but he wouldn’t reject a gift from the fates. Bad things happened to people who tossed away such gifts.
Tim grinned. “Good. I’ve heard too many incidences where shifters were rejected by their mates. I’m glad I won’t be one of that group.”
“That’s not a problem.” Well, not after he arranged a few things. Oliver’s exposure to shifters left him with a better than average understanding of their ways. Although he didn’t hang with the pack, he’d heard enough about Anthony’s relationship to know how shifter mating worked. Oliver took another sip of coffee. “What do you do for a living?”
“Nothing much right now. I sued my pack and got a large settlement. I’ve been looking for my brother, Henry, ever since I woke up from a coma.” For the first time, a scowl crossed Tim’s cheerful face.
“A coma?” It took a lot to knock out a shifter. To put Tim into a coma, he must have come close to death. Maybe more questions would reveal who he needed to kill to keep Tim safe. He could always retire later.
“Henry and I were trapped in a pit-fighting ring. Our old alpha sold my brother and me to the owner to get us out of the pack. I think he was worried Henry would take his place as alpha. My brother is a big wolf and a good leader. The rest of the pack respected him and would have followed him.”
“Was he worried you would take over too?” Oliver asked, checking out Tim’s large size.
Tim shook his head. “No. I’ve never wanted to be alpha. I’m pretty sure he sent me along so that I didn’t make a fuss over Henry disappearing. I know our alpha thought we’d die in the ring and solve his leadership problem. I survived, which is how I got his balls in a vise and won a settlement from a sympathetic shifter judge.”
“How did you get in a coma?”
“In my last match against Henry, I was blindfolded. At some point, I was knocked out. When I woke up, a year had passed and no one knew anything about my brother, or even me. I’m not sure who put me in the hospital, but they didn’t come back.”
“A year? I’ve never heard of a shifter taking an injury that bad and surviving.” Not much could bring a shifter down for more than a few hours.
“I had a head injury that didn’t heal well. I still sometimes get headaches.” Tim’s sad expression twisted Oliver’s emotions. “Right now I’m focused on finding Henry. He wouldn’t just abandon me. I need to know what happened to him.”
Oliver pressed a soft kiss to Tim’s cheek. Sympathy spiked through him. “I’ll help you all I can. What was your old alpha’s name?” He tried to keep his expression as if it were an innocent inquiry.
Tim’s eyes narrowed as he examined Oliver’s expression. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell you.”
“Why not?” Oliver scowled.
“Call it instinct. Besides, in exchange for the settlement, I signed a paper stating that I wouldn’t exact retribution for the alpha’s crimes.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be doing anything. It would be all me.” Oliver didn’t tell Tim that no one would ever find the alpha’s body to lodge a complaint. That might be giving too much away.
“I appreciate the thought, but I’m happy with never seeing him again.” Tim’s quick kiss on the lips warmed Oliver’s soul.
Oliver didn’t offer any more arguments. If Tim was happy with the deal, Oliver wouldn’t do anything to ruin it, but if the alpha crossed Oliver’s path, he wouldn’t hesitate to end him. “If you’re certain?” He let the question hang in the air for a bit, hoping Tim would change his mind.
“Yeah, I’m much better now.” Tim’s smile eased Oliver’s fears. “The worst part of being out of it for a year is I lost track of Henry. I have some money to give him from the pack when I find him again.”
“The pack gave you money for your brother?” He could see why they’d pay Tim, but surely they’d keep back what they owed Henry.
“Yeah, they paid me for both of us. Since Henry wasn’t there, I was his representative and took the settlement for him. I didn’t trust them to payout if no one held them accountable. The alpha is a slime ball and greedy enough to sell his packmates for money, what’s to stop him from keeping our settlement? So yeah, I took it with me.” The sorrow in Tim’s voice had Oliver hugging him.
“Maybe Anthony can give me the name of an investigator. He’s the local alpha’s mate, and my boss. He knows a lot of people. If he doesn’t know anyone, I’m sure someone in the Moon Pack will. Is that why you’re packless now? You’re still searching for your brother?” Oliver had other contacts he could use, but he didn’t want to bring attention to those parts of his life yet. Eventually he would have to confess everything to his new mate, but it might be a while before they had that level of comfort between them. He tapped his fingers restlessly against his coffee mug, fighting the strands of guilt wrapping around his soul. Holding back the whole truth might cause problems in the long run, but he couldn’t start out with Tim knowing everything about his past, they were too new in this relationship.
Tim nodded. “I won’t join a pack until I find my brother. He’s the only family I have left. I just hope he’s still alive.”
The wistful longing in Tim’s voice tugged at Oliver’s heartstrings. Wolves were loyal; he had always known that. Oliver didn’t think he would have put his entire life on hold for any relative of his. Of course most of them were assholes.
“We’ll find him.” Oliver would use his own contacts if he needed to, even if it blew his cover. “Who paid for your hospital stay?”
“Whoever dumped me at the hospital must’ve thought I was either dead or too injured to heal. I was told I started breathing again in the morgue. The doctors were surprised I didn’t suffer brain damage. A really great nurse used some sort of special grant to pay for my hospital stay. When I got my settlement, I paid them back so the next person would be covered. I have enough money that neither of us has to ever work again. You could quit your job if you’d like,” Tim offered.
“I have enough money. I just enjoy working.” Most of the time. One day soon he would tell Tim about his hidden funds. Squirreled away in dozens of off-shore accounts were millions of dollars in Oliver’s rainy-day funds. If needed, he would spend every penny he had to help Tim find his brother. Oliver searched his mind for the source of these new feelings. The mate bond must be affecting him. He didn’t know how he felt about that.
“If you ever decide to quit, at least we’ll have enough money between us.” Tim hugged Oliver.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He inhaled his mate’s scent. Tim smelled of a midnight forest, green things and cool mist.
Tim’s generosity melted any possible objection to their surprise mating. He might have preferred a slow courtship and getting to know his future life partner over time, but this sweet shifter with a troubled past had snuck beneath Oliver’s normally strong defenses. Finding room in his life for a warm-hearted shifter longing for a family wouldn’t be a hardship. A little life rearranging would fix a lot of things. As mates Oliver had to make sure Tim had everything he needed to be happy. Between them they had monetary strength. Now they only had to work in the emotional.
“Anthony is always going on about how he wants his people to have a good work/life balance. I can probably work part-time if I want. He can always call me in for the warding part as needed. If you want us to spend more time together, I could go freelance.” Spending his free time with Tim instead of at the office sounded like a much better use of his life.
“Good. I don’t like the idea of you slaving away under someone else’s direction. You are mine,” Tim growled. His possessive tone would’ve annoyed Oliver coming from anyone else.
“I know a few other warders I can have him contract with if he needs more help. I only do it because he has so much going on.” And Oliver had been trying to determine if Anthony needed killing. Information he didn’t plan to share with his mate. Tim had enough worries without learning of Oliver’s past. A past he was going bury so deep even the mafia wouldn’t be able to find the body.
“What will your family think about you taking up with a shifter?” Tim’s forehead creased in a worried frown.
Memories of his father beating him when Oliver picked the wrong fork at a formal dinner flashed through his head. “I don’t know. I ran away when I was in my teens.”
Tim squeezed him tight. “You poor thing. At least I had my brother.”
Oliver patted Tim’s back. “Ease up,” he gasped.
“Oh, sorry.” Tim pressed a kiss on the top of Oliver’s head before releasing him.
Oliver stepped back, avoiding Tim’s probing gaze. “It was a long time ago.” He didn’t try to explain to Tim the true evil of his family. He’d left them in his past and he had no intention of revisiting them.
“Do you miss them?”
“No.” It was difficult to explain to someone when he couldn’t understand it himself. He still didn’t know why they even bothered to have a child. Luckily he had kept tabs on them to make sure they never had another. “My parents weren’t what you would call nurturing. My mother is very self-centered and my father has always been more interested in his stock reports than his only child. I pretty much raised myself. I learned early on that drawing attention to myself wasn’t a good thing.” Oliver didn’t even try to keep the bitterness out of his voice. The scars from his childhood had never truly healed, and he still had moments of insecurity. There weren’t enough psychologists in the world to develop a positive, functioning adult from the dregs of his childhood, even though a few had tried.
Tim wrapped his arms around Oliver and hugged him tight. Oliver soaked up the attention. He didn’t dare call it love at this point, but it was at least affection.
He leaned his head against Tim’s strong shoulder, and barely reached Tim’s chin. “I didn’t realize shifters were so touchy-feely,” he mumbled.
“Some more than others.”
Oliver had received more affection in the past hour than he could remember receiving in all the years before. A sad commentary on his emotional well-being. “I could get used to this,” he said again, not bothering to lift his head from its comfy spot.
“Hugging?” Tim’s voice rumbled in his chest, resonating beneath Oliver’s ear.
He snuggled in closer. “Affection.” The wolf shifter was free with his emotions, putting them out there for Oliver to accept or not with a breathless lack of self-consciousness.
“My parents died when I was young, and my big brother raised me even though he was only a few years older. Henry always made sure that I knew I was loved. I made the alpha that hurt us regret every injury we got in those pits.” The feral satisfaction in Tim’s voice made Oliver smile. His mate wasn’t all kindness and sunshine. Good. Oliver didn’t know if he could handle someone completely happy all the time.
“I’m glad you had your brother. We’ll find him again.” Oliver banished the useless wish that he’d had a sibling of any kind to run away with. Someone his own age would have made the trials of his life much easier to bear.
Tim stepped away from Oliver and picked up his coffee cup. “I know we will. Until then we have each other. You’re part of my new family.”
Oliver smiled. He could honestly say he’d never had anyone who treated him like real family.
“What’s your last name again?” Tim asked.
Oliver almost told him before he caught himself and pulled away to look Tim in the eyes. “You can’t go attack my parents.” He picked up his own coffee cup and flashed Tim a mocking glare.
“You were scarier before your coffee,” Tim said, not bothering to deny Oliver’s accusation. “I was only going to maul them a little bit. Family should love you no matter what.”
“They should, but sometimes they just don’t. If you went after them and they didn’t die, they would have you thrown in jail. They’re rich and powerful and have the morals of a loan shark. They would think nothing of having you destroyed. Better to ignore them and enjoy our life together. Isn’t that what they say is the best revenge?” He refused to let his mate put himself into danger for a pointless revenge. He had long ago come to understand some people weren’t worth the trouble of a good mauling.
“Despite everything, you still turned out okay.” Tim kissed Oliver’s cheek before reaching behind him and pouring another cup of coffee. “Besides I appreciate a man who has an extra-large coffee carafe.”
Oliver laughed, defusing the tension from their conversation. “What about our living situation? Do you want to stay here, or do you have a place? His mind raced over all the things that would be changing in his life. If he thought too long about everything he needed to do, his brain would short-circuit.
“We should look for a place close to the forest. I need room to let my wolf roam.”
Oliver nodded. “We can house hunt next weekend.” This week was already filling up with unexpected tasks.