‘What are we going to do?’ she whispered. Damn it. Now I want a throne too.

Wilder swung his gaze at me with a plea in his eyes.

We ended up like Oceana and Maire, after all, I say to Bay. Two sisters who have to live apart.I’m proud to be like them, Bay says.

So am I. They kept faith with each other. Neither of them tried to destroy the other, though they could have, the way the sisters in that siren story did.It is easy to see my mother and her sister in every small thing, to feel them in the open places in my soul. I think they watch us. I think they love us still.Bay wraps both arms around me and I feel her tears on my skin. We are not lost mermaids with seaweed hair and coins for eyes, but human girls, alive and found.

We are sisters, and we did not drown.CHAPTER ONE He was going to get bad news today. Nick knew it in his bones. The knowing wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. He’d often know things. Sometimes it was just as it was right now—no more than a feeling, an itch at the back of his neck that warned him something was wrong but gave him no clue as to what. Other times it was more specific yet very mundane; he would know exactly where a missing object was, like the TV remote or the car keys. But then there were times when the knowing was a heavy weight in his gut, a warning that rang through his body…like that time when he was in the woods with his sister and he had known that if they didn’t turn back, something awful would happen, something that would change everything. Call it intuition, call it instincts, call it a gift—whatever. The point was that he knew that bad news was coming, and it was becoming harder and harder for the Alpha to keep his anxiety from leaking out into the pack link. He was pretty sure that the two wolves in the vehicle with him had felt his edginess, but that was only to be expected considering that—as his brother and bodyguard—they were closely attuned to him. His wolf also sensed Nick’s tension and was now pacing within him, as edgy and restless as he was. Well at least he and his wolf were on the same page, for a change—he’d missed that feeling. Nick Axton had always prided himself on the fact that he and his wolf were very much in sync with each other. There had only ever been one thing that they had been in total disagreement on—claiming Shaya Critchley, their mate. His wolf’s stance on the matter was simple: she was their true mate, therefore Nick should claim her and bond with her and make her their Alpha female of the Ryland Pack. But it wasn’t as clear-cut as that. No, there was a host of issues surrounding this situation. For one thing, making a submissive wolf an Alpha female was next to impossible. It wasn’t that submissive wolves were weak or passive. Hell no. Despite their aura of calm, submissive wolves could be feisty, hotheaded, and mentally stronger than any dominant wolf, just as dominant wolves could be weak-minded or emotionally vulnerable despite their aura of intensity. But these differences in aura were partly why dominant wolves were always high in rank; a dominant’s intense vibes could suppress and, thus, force the submission of any wolf they were more powerful than, thereby leaving submissive wolves vulnerable to them. The other essential difference between dominants and submissives lay in physical strength—a submissive, no matter their inner strength, could never be physically stronger than a dominant wolf. As such, submissives were vulnerable to dominant wolves on two scores, but they were vital to every pack in that without the natural calming influence of submissive wolves running through the pack link, the dominants’ natural intensity would leave the pack unstable. As such, though Shaya was vital to a pack and had the inner strength to match any dominant wolf, she would be vulnerable in other ways. If she was Alpha female, she would therefore be challenged repeatedly by the dominant females in the pack for her position. Of course Nick could keep her safe by ordering that no one challenge her¸ but then she would never be respected or followed or acknowledged as Alpha female. That would leave her feeling on the outside looking in, which was absolutely unacceptable to Nick, as was the very idea of her in danger. That left him only one option if he still wished to claim her: he would have to step down from his position as Alpha. Hell, Nick would happily give it up if it meant he could have his mate. The problem was that no one in his pack wanted the position, and no one wanted the responsibility of keeping the pack stable. The old Alpha had been like a cancer, and he’d corrupted the entire pack until he’d blackened the heart of it. Although Nick had challenged and killed him long ago, past events still haunted the pack, and old wounds still tormented it. His wolf wasn’t concerned with these details surrounding the matter. It was all very black-and-white for him—Shaya was his, so she must be claimed. As such, he was particularly angry with Nick. Not that it was unusual for his wolf to be in a somber mood. He had somewhat of a dark disposition, in fact. Well of course he did. Not only had he surfaced prematurely, but he had been born in rage and fear. As a rule, shifters changed for the first time during puberty. Nick had been just five when, in one very bizarre moment, his wolf had surfaced to protect him. Having such a strong, powerful wolf was something Nick was extremely proud of, but it hurt to know that his wolf had been born that way, leaving scars on his soul—scars that had been deepened by the event that had later led to Nick spending time in a juvenile prison. Despite his wolf’s anger, the animal wasn’t wild or challenging. No, his wolf was still as controlled and composed as Nick, but he also viewed the world as a bleak, dark, harsh place. Shaya had been the only thing to ever stir strong emotions in his wolf. Admittedly, she was the only thing that had stirred strong emotions in Nick. Much like his wolf, he could be hard, cold, and remote at times. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a conscience, and nor was it that he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. But Nick seemed to lack a little something—like there had been a glitch in his emotional development that made it difficult for him to bond with others, to connect like they did. He felt emotion the same as everyone else—or the same as most, anyway. But bonding was something he found difficult. Maybe it was hardly surprising. His wolf had surfaced too early, surfaced at a time when his mind and body hadn’t been ready. It would be much like a young child being plunged into the stages of puberty—it wasn’t something they were psychologically or biologically ready for, and it would undoubtedly have a fundamental effect on their development as a person: mentally, physically, and emotionally. As such, Nick was tainted and broken in so many ways. His mate, however, was much the opposite. Shaya reminded him of a butterfly: colorful, vibrant, graceful, and always on the move. She had a certain grace and ease with people, could mingle in any crowd and charm them with her sassy attitude. Not that she was Little Miss Innocent. Oh no. He’d heard all about her legendary temper. He’d heard that she could be just as crazy as her best friend and Alpha female, Taryn. But, still, Shaya was sweet and perfect, and so different from him it was laughable. He could still vividly remember the day he’d found her. It had been the mating ceremony of her Alpha pair, and he had offered to perform the ceremony for them. He’d had an itchy feeling all day, a knowing that something important was going to happen. The second his gaze had landed on the beautiful redhead, he’d known what she was to him. The impact of the realization had been like a blow to the chest; possessiveness, joy, and need had hit him all at once. The pressing urge to claim her had climbed all over him, entered every pore of his body, and invaded every cell…and it hadn’t left him. He craved her so badly that she was all he thought about, all he dreamed about. He itched with the need to have her, touch her, smell her, or even just be around her. The need could steal his breath, taunt his mind, and make his body restless. Basically, it was hell.

But the main reason he forced himself to endure that hell and resist claiming this one thing he wanted more than anything else was that she could find herself being burdened with a patient instead of a partner. His mother’s words rung in his head: The healing sessions are working, Nick. Don’t forsake your mate out of fear. You’re strong; you can fight this. There weren’t many shifters whose animal surfaced prematurely, but each one of them shared something in common: their cognitive functions suffered for it in later life, slowly degenerating. There was no denying that the healing sessions were working for Nick. The headaches, memory lapses, muscle tremors, and episodes of mental disorientation had all eased off. In some cases of premature shifting amongst his kind, these degenerative aftereffects could be healed completely, but in some cases they couldn’t. As his mother had said, he was strong. But his mother was right about something else: that fear remained…that fear that the improvement was only temporary, that the problem would eventually return. His pack healer had warned Nick that this could happen. If it did happen and he was mated to Shaya at the time, she would find herself being his caregiver as opposed to his partner, watching him slowly deteriorate until he didn’t even know who she was. He’d seen what it was like for his mother to live without a mate. She had survived the breaking of her true mate bond with his father after he died by centering her entire existence around her children, clinging to them like a lifeline. She was happy in her own way, but she was still lonely and only half alive. With Nick as her patient rather than her partner, Shaya would in effect be without a mate. He couldn’t bear the thought of his spirited Shaya only half alive. Although he didn’t feel he could claim her, Nick was resolved that he would always watch over Shaya from a distance, always protect her. Her well-being would always be paramount to him. And that was exactly why he was, at that moment, in his SUV approaching the perimeter gates of Phoenix Pack territory. He needed to be sure that the bad news had no relation whatsoever to Shaya. He needed to know that it was not at all linked to her health or safety. And, yes, he could admit he needed to just see her, needed a small fix. He knew it wasn’t fair to pry in her life if he wasn’t going to claim her, even if it was in an effort to protect her. In fact, her Beta pair—the only members of her pack, to Nick’s knowledge, who knew he and Shaya were mates—had quite rightly pointed this out. They had also warned him that if the Alpha pair found out, there was a good chance that a war between the packs would begin. But even that wasn’t enough to keep Nick away. As Trey and Nick were close allies, the shifter guarding the perimeter gate didn’t flag them down; he simply gave them a respectful nod and let them pass through the gates of Phoenix Pack territory, which was disguised as a nature reserve. Nick’s wolf relaxed a little—content in the knowledge that he would soon see his mate. Eli, Nick’s brother, drove the SUV to the mountain that was deep within the territory. Unlike most packs, including Nick’s own, the Phoenix wolves didn’t live in cabins. Instead, they lived inside the mountain—an ancient cave dwelling that had been modernized. Once Eli had parked the SUV inside the concealed parking lot at the base of the mountain, Nick turned to him. Stay here. Derren and I should only be fifteen minutes or so. Nick was always careful not to bring too many wolves inside the caves. The Alpha, Trey, wasn’t the most stable of people, and his wolf easily felt threatened. As such, the arrival of three powerful, dominant wolves would instantly have him title1=. Nick, maybe you— Derren quickly cut himself off, sighing. Never mind. Grateful he wasn’t going to have to listen to more of Derren’s shit, Nick exited the SUV. Both Eli and Derren knew that Shaya was his mate. Being someone who stayed out of other people’s business, Eli hadn’t said much about it—plus, he knew that pressing Nick on anything was an exercise in futility. Derren, however, had raised the matter plenty of times, badgering Nick to stop letting fear interfere with his decision to claim Shaya. It was getting real old. With Derren close behind him, Nick climbed up the steps that had been carved into the face of the mountain until he finally came to the entrance. One of the enforcers, Marcus, was there, holding the door open. He didn’t look happy. That might not have given Nick cause to frown if it wasn’t for the fact that the tall, dark-haired wolf was usually cheery and flashing everyone a clown-wide smile. When Marcus didn’t even give him a nod of greeting, a feeling of disquiet came over Nick. Trey’s in the kitchen, he said simply before gesturing with a tip of his head for Nick and Derren to follow him through the tunnels that would take them deeper into the mountain. After a series of turns, they eventually reached the very contemporary kitchen. Sitting at the long dining table were the other three enforcers, the Head Enforcer, the Beta pair, and the Alpha pair. Much like Marcus, they didn’t look happy to see him, particularly Taryn. And that could only mean one thing: they all knew the truth about Shaya being his mate. So either the Beta pair had finally told them, or Shaya herself had. Well, it had only been a matter of time. Not one to play games, Nick didn’t bother with any pretense. Stopping in front of the table, he simply said, So you know. Oh, we know, confirmed Taryn snappily. Her mate began kneading her nape, clearly trying to keep her from going for Nick’s throat. The blonde might be small and dainty, but she was powerful. And scary, for that matter. In fact, most of the shifter community feared her as her once latent wolf had overcome that suppression and surfaced. I suppose this is the part where you order me to stay away from Shaya. If they thought they’d have any success with that, more fool them. Hell, he’d ordered himself to stay away from her, and not even that had worked. You owe her that, gritted out Jaime; the Beta female was a close friend of Shaya’s. But that was his Shaya—she made friends easily, inspired loyalty and protectiveness in people, which was why the wolves in front of him were clearly fantasizing about killing him. He noticed that one of the enforcers looked particularly pissed with him. Dominic. Nick really did hate that wolf. Why? Because Dominic spent a lot of time with her—so much so that Nick had at one point suspected he was in a relationship with her. Usually his wolf—who was prone to jealousy—would have most of his attention focused on the little prick, but not today. No, today his wolf was stressing over something and was annoyed with Nick for not realizing what his wolf had already sensed: Shaya’s scent was faint. Extremely faint, in fact. Unease tingled down Nick’s spine. Where is she?

That’s not important, stated Trey, his arctic-blue eyes drilling into Nick. What’s important is that you listen carefully. We’re all very much aware that you and Shaya are mates and that you’ve both known it from the beginning. As it’s obvious that you don’t want to claim her, you are to butt out of her life and leave her alone. If you don’t butt out, well, you must want a war between our packs. The word war should have had him growling and on high title1=, totally focused on Trey. But all Nick could think about was the fact that Shaya’s scent was far too faint—faint enough to suggest that she hadn’t been here for a while. Where is she? Trey and his Beta male, Dante, exchanged looks that said they weren’t surprised that Nick was unconcerned about the warning. Her whereabouts are none of your business, snarled Taryn. Tao, the Head Enforcer sitting beside her, nodded his agreement. Nick’s face hardened. His words were quiet but firm. Shaya is, and will always be, my business. That had Taryn jumping to her feet. If Trey hadn’t twisted his hand in the back of her sweater, she’d have leaped over the table. Yougoddamnmotherfuckingsonofabitch! It’s okay, baby, soothed Trey. One of the enforcers, Trick, went to her side and laid a supportive hand on her shoulder. It was only then that Nick noticed the tears swirling around her eyes. For Taryn to be so upset, Shaya hadn’t simply gone on vacation or to stay with her family in her old pack for a little while. She’d left for good. No, it’s not. My best friend has gone because of that rat bastard! Yep, that confirmed it. Gone where? demanded Nick, barely holding back a growl. His wolf began pacing inside him, clawing at him, wanting freedom, wanting to hunt down his mate—the only thing that really meant anything to him. Somewhere safe, Jaime told him. Somewhere where you can’t hurt her anymore. Nick took one step forward, and each of the Phoenix wolves tensed, prepared to spring. Yeah? Well he didn’t give a f**k. You think I want to hurt her? You think it doesn’t eat at me that I can’t have her? You think I don’t constantly wonder where she is, what she’s doing, and if she’s safe? All of the faces softened, but Nick didn’t want their f**king sympathy. He wanted to know where his mate was. He zeroed in on Trey. Tell me where she is. When he didn’t answer, Nick placed his hands on the table and leaned forward, placing him eye to eye with the Alpha. All the Phoenix wolves growled low, but they didn’t attempt to interfere—that would imply that their Alpha couldn’t deal with his own shit. As it was, Trey was perfectly capable of fighting his own battles. But although Trey might be strong and powerful, so was Nick; he let the full extent of his dominance leak into his expression, communicating that he was just as powerful as Trey. In actuality, he was also as f**ked up as Trey—he just hid it better. The Alpha leaned forward, placing his face close to Nick’s, meeting his gaze full-on. I have no interest in dueling with you, Nick—you fought alongside me to help protect my mate, my son, and my pack. That’s something I’ll always be thankful to you for. I once had people try to keep Taryn from me, and I reacted just as badly, so I can understand how you’re feeling to an extent. But if it’s a duel you want, you’ll get one. If this was Taryn, if I knew where she was and I wouldn’t tell you, what would you do? Trey cocked his head. That’s the thing—I never would have left her. I’m not the noble type. If you want to be self-sacrificing, fine, whatever—but you do it away from Shaya. Dante spoke then, crossing his arms over his muscular chest. If we thought you wanted to know her whereabouts for the right reason, we’d tell you. But you don’t want to find her so you can claim her. It simply suits you to be able to interfere in her life. That’s not fair to her. Jaime laid a hand on Dante’s arm. I know what it’s like to feel you have to resist mating with someone because you fear putting them in danger, Nick. And she really did know. Her wolf had been so traumatized that Jaime had been at risk of losing her human half completely. If that had happened and she had turned rogue, she would have been killed. For that reason, she had resisted bonding with Dante, worried he wouldn’t survive the link being broken if she died. Luckily, bonding with Dante had instead helped her wolf heal. Of course her reference to danger meant the danger of Shaya being an Alpha female—she didn’t know about Nick’s health issues, or she would most likely understand. But Nick wasn’t and never had been interested in other people’s perception of him, so he had no intention of explaining himself. I know it hurts, continued Jaime, but you should have claimed her and trusted that you’d be stronger together. Just because Shaya can’t be physically stronger than a dominant female doesn’t mean she can’t still defeat them. There’s more to combat than physical strength—take it from someone who was trained by the best. She gestured at Dante. I’ve kicked Popeye’s ass a number of times. Dante scowled at her for that comment. Nick sighed impatiently. The dominant females wouldn’t even need to challenge her. All they’d have to do is hit her with their dominant vibes and she’d be automatically submitting whether she wanted to or not. And Nick hated the idea of it. When an odd expression surfaced on Taryn’s face, he narrowed his eyes. What? Taryn shook her head. Losing her scowl, she sighed. Just leave her alone, Nick. She’s safe. I give you my word that if anything ever happens to her, if she’s ever hurt, I will contact you. But that’s the most you’re getting. While he appreciated that, it wasn’t enough. He’d been kidding himself if he thought simply being around Shaya from time to time would be enough. It was only now, as he was faced with the fact that she was gone from his life, that she would never be a part of it, that he might never see her again, that he realized he’d subconsciously nurtured a hope that he could find a way around their issues. He hadn’t truly given up on the matter, not deep inside, but the present situation was forcing him to do so, to give up all hope. And he found that he couldn’t.The first question...the one I’d been dreading.

Pippa cried into her nana’s suit, unable to utter the words. She hadn’t spoken them yet. She hadn’t verbally admitted that Conner was dead. Whenever she spoke of him, she used words that were ambiguous. Deliberately ignoring the truth.That he’d left her. Me. All of us.

Answer Mrs. Evermore’s question, if you would, Mr. Oak.My attention snapped to the man running his fingers pompously on his clipboard. My instincts kicked in, sniffing for his hidden agenda. Because he had a hidden motive; I just didn’t know what it was.

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