Jane sighed and looked out the window to the woods surrounding the house. Spring was coming and wildflowers were beginning to bloom. As a girl she used to love this time of year, but growing up had affected much of her life. War between the species had changed many of her views, and now the tenuous peace had changed it yet again. Two years ago she had been optimistic, certain the humans and shifters had learned to live together in relative peace. Now…she didn’t know what to think.
Crimes against humans were on the rise in every border city along the wall. Shifters were allegedly disappearing at an alarming rate from The Federal Nation of Therianthropes, only to be found dead in The Combined Human States. It was a frightening time for everyone and no one knew how to make it better. For her own safety, Bjorn had insisted she remain in his cabin any time he couldn’t go out with her. She had left her job working for the Human Council for Environmental Rejuvenation at his request just two months ago. Unfortunately she was regretting that decision more and more each day. Was this really what she wanted? To be locked in his home, only allowed out when he could protect her from his people and hers?
A sound at the back door pulled her from her musings and she turned from the window to watch Bjorn walk in. He was just as breathtaking as the first time she had seem him two years ago on her computer screen. A tall muscular physique, from the loose auburn ponytail down a strong torso to his thick thighs, every inch of him perfect in her eyes. He was amazingly gentle for a bear-shifter and always a gentleman. He would never keep her against her will.
They had worked well together, helping to build community centers at each major checkpoint along the wall. For a full year those centers had thrived and relations between the species had seemed almost perfect. Then the unthinkable happened. President Theron’s daughter had been kidnapped and found in the Animal Menagerie, forced to dance in one of their infamous cages. She’d been released quickly after being spotted by a human who recognized her, but the damage had been done.
Bjorn had wasted no time packing Jane up and bringing her to his home in FNT. She had no family, no close friends, no one she was concerned about leaving behind. It had sounded good at the time. But with each day her restlessness grew and she was beginning to wonder how much longer she could remain in her gilded cage. Despite everything he had done for and given her, Jane still felt trapped.
Bjorn removed his gloves and set them on the kitchen table, stealing glances at Jane from the corner of his eye. Her restlessness was nearly tangible and the animal buried within him growled. He held it back from her human ears with effort, afraid of scaring her. He’d been walking on eggshells for months. He could admit now that showing up at her house in the dead of night, insisting she pack the essentials and leave with him, might not have been the best idea. But mobs of humans had begun to form and take their fears and frustrations out on anyone they deemed a threat. Jane had never kept their relationship a secret and he feared for her safety.
She was so beautiful, with dark brown hair in a wave of loose curls to the middle of her back. At six-foot she was tall for a human woman, and her shapely hips cradled him perfectly. She had always welcomed him into her bed but the past couple of weeks she had seemed distracted. The light in her eyes was dimming and he had no idea what to do about it. Her safety came before everything, even his own. He just wished she understood and accepted that.
He washed his soil covered hands in the kitchen sink and inhaled her scent deeply as she approached. Her small hands ran over his back, up to his shoulders and back down again. He was tense with fear and uncertainty. Would today be the day she demanded to return home to CHS?
“How is the garden?” she asked.
“Good. We will have carrots and tomatoes soon.”
She smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes and without thought he cradled her face between his large palms, forcing her gaze to meet his.
“All will be better eventually, my beloved. I know it’s hard now…adjusting. But this can’t last forever.”
She sighed and closed her eyes before leaning into him. He held her close, careful not to grip her frail human body too tightly. The honeysuckle scent of her hair filled his lungs and he inhaled deeply with a smile. She had joked about using honey to perfume her body because of his bear nature. Licking the real thing off her skin was one of his favorite treats.
“I don’t think I can stay here any longer, Bjorn.”
Her whispered words may have been lost on human ears, but he heard her loud and clear. Shouting in his ear couldn’t have been any more painful than the words he’d been dreading for weeks. She was ready to leave him. He tightened his hold for only a moment before releasing her and stepping away. She remained where she stood.
“Pack your things and I will return you to CHS but not to your house. Every one of your neighbors knows what I am and of our relationship. You will be safer in a city.”
With a glance he registered the shock on her face.
“You’ll take me back?” she asked.
He nodded before heading to their bedroom. “You are not a prisoner here, beloved. I only wish for your happiness.”
Shock left Jane immobile as Bjorn disappeared into their bedroom without another word. Home. He was taking her home. So, why did panic suddenly fill her at the thought? She shook her head and followed him, deciding she was just anxious to return to all she knew and loved.
Bjorn was packing his own bag when she walked in and it disheartened her to see how little he was taking.
Of course, he can’t stay in CHS. He would be killed.
The thought froze her in her tracks and she studied him more closely. Usually strong, proud shoulders were stooped as he hunched over the open bag on their bed. His brow was wrinkled. In concentration? His strong jaw was clenched and eyes that normally tracked her across every room remained lowered. This wasn’t what he wanted but he was willing to do this for her. Always for her.
Tears stung the back of her throat as she remained in the doorways watching him. Part of her wanted to remain by his side, here in the home he had made with his own hands. He had seemed so nervous the first time she had walked through the door, as if concerned she wouldn’t like it. Truth was, she loved it. Every part of it was so like him, it made her feel cherished and safe. Just like he did.
Another part of her knew staying here day in and day out simply wasn’t an option. She had no purpose other than to be Bjorn’s woman. Though that fulfilled some of her needs, it left others withering. She feared she would one day resent him and lose the love she held so precariously in her heart. She had never even said those three small words, guarding them closely for fear they would slip away into nothingness. As if taking her lead he hadn’t either, but he always called her his beloved and treated her as the most important thing in his life. With a heavy heart Jane finally stepped fully into the room and packed her things.
They were packed and he had closed the house up as he normally did before a long absence. Everything was as ready as possible. Jane sat in the front passenger seat of the military vehicle Bjorn had been given shortly after agreeing to work for his Alpha. If he didn’t finish up quickly, they would be driving through the night. He didn’t really care one way or the other. He had packed for only three days. Two to get her to a safe place and one to spend saying his goodbyes. It wasn’t enough. A lifetime wasn’t nearly enough. But arguing would be futile when he knew staying here was slowly leaching the life from her.
He rounded the house one last time, checking the windows and ensuring all was as it should be for his absence. The sight of his garden gave him pause. It had been her idea to plant more vegetables. Now the sight of them would forever be tainted by memories of them working the ground side-by-side. An irrational urge to rip out the soil nearly overwhelmed him and he closed his eyes against the onslaught.
No. It is better this way. She can live a normal life among her people.
He took a deep breath and released it slowly, along with the fear, frustration and pain her leaving had embedded in his soul. Her well-being was his main concern above all else. Including his own.
As he left the garden behind the stillness in the woods around him finally registered. He froze for a heartbeat, sniffing the air, before running to the front of the house. A glance showed Jane was still safely locked in his vehicle, but two other trucks were parked behind him. He could still get out, as there was no actual driveway in the woods around his house. But as soon as the doors on the other two vehicles opened he realized there was no need.
“Alpha,” Bjorn said to the man slowly approaching him.
Sandulf gave a short nod but his face remained serious. The men who had arrived with him, all wolves like their Alpha, stayed by their vehicles but kept their gazes locked on the pair. Bjorn knew a single misstep from him would have the pack on him quicker than thought in defense of Sandulf.
“Bjorn,” Sandulf said, bringing his attention back to the man before him. “I didn’t realize you were heading out today.
That was debatable. Sandulf had a psychic link to every shifter in FNT unlike any other pack leader in the world. It was one of his many unusual strengths.
“Yes, sir. I return my mate to her home.”
One brow quirked up at that announcement and Sandulf looked over his shoulder to Bjorn’s truck. Jane’s face paled at the attention but she didn’t lower her gaze. Pride swelled in Bjorn at her courage. He knew strong shifter men who wouldn’t dare hold the Alpha’s gaze.
“You return your mate to her home?” Sandulf asked. He made a show of looking at Bjorn’s house and the surrounding woods. “Isn’t that what this is?”
Bjorn sighed and ran a hand through his hair, suddenly more tired than he’d been in a long time.
“She does not feel this is true. She is…unhappy here.”
The admission was torn out of him, much like he felt his heart would be in three days’ time. He swallowed hard, trying to banish his pain.
“She is too idle? You must give her children, Bjorn. Cubs will keep her too busy to remember CHS.”
Heat filled his face at the reminder of the only true argument he had ever had with Jane. She had refused his offer of marriage and blanched at the mention of children. He’d never brought it up again.
“She doesn’t wish to bear my cubs. She isn’t ready to be my mate.”
Sandulf looked over his shoulder again. Jane still watched them. After a few minutes of silence the Alpha finally faced Bjorn again.
“I have a solution. Bring your mate inside so we can talk.”
Bjorn stood very still as Sandulf and his men drove away, disappearing quickly beneath the trees. There were only three defined paths to Bjorn’s house and Sandulf knew them well. A soft sound alerted him to Jane’s approach. With her scent permeating everything in his home, it wasn’t always easy to know exactly where she was without seeing her.
Her unsteady voice revealed her nervousness and uncertainty. He swallowed hard before turning to face her. Once again his Alpha had stepped in to save his life. No…his soul. All it had taken was the offer of a job to keep Jane busy. A job with the express purpose of aiding shifters in maintaining what peace they held. She had needed a purpose, he knew, but knowing he wasn’t enough hurt deeply.
“Yes?” he replied.
She crossed the living room until she stood two feet away, watching him warily. He hadn’t reacted with the joy she had shown when Sandulf had made the offer. Perhaps that confused her? After all, keeping her here had always been his wish.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair, trying to think of something to say. He had already brought their bags back inside. She had unpacked her things and put them back into the spaces he had made for them two months ago. But his bag still sat by the front door as if he was considering a trip alone.
“I thought…” she began. He waited, knowing he should explain. “I thought you would be happy.”
He frowned and closed the distance, pulling her into his arms.
“I am happy to keep you here with me. Here in this home I made for both if us,” he said quietly.
She pulled back and looked into his eyes with questions in hers. “Then why don’t you seem happy?”
There was any number of things he could say. Pretty lies he could spin that might not be full lies at all. But he had always been completely honest with her about everything. After two years together, being untruthful in any way felt wrong, like an acrid taste on his tongue. He simply couldn’t do it.
“Why am I not reason enough for you, beloved? Why won’t you marry me? Have my children?”
True surprise crossed her beautiful face before her brows drew down and she bit her lip. Perhaps she was preparing to tell her own lies now.
“That’s not it at all, Bjorn. I swear. I want to be with you.”
He waited but she didn’t seem to know what else to say. After nearly a minute he simply nodded and turned away. She said nothing else as he stepped into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
Even without shifter senses, Jane knew Bjorn was in pain. It was nothing physical. Nothing she could put a bandage over. But still she knew the power to ease it was fully in her power. Could she do it? Could she finally pledge herself to this man who had already given her so much of himself? He was always honest, always faithful. She never feared he would hurt her in any way. So, what in the hell was her problem?
It had taken all of her willpower to sit through their nearly silent dinner and actually eat. He was a naturally quiet man, but tonight it was almost tangible. Like a thick, smothering smog between them, the silence stretched on until he finally stood and cleared the table. She helped him with the dishes and he thanked her, but nothing else. The idea that she may have caused irreparable damage to their relationship scared the hell out of her. How was she going to fix this? She had to fix this.
He took a shower as she prepared for bed, and by the time he left the bathroom she was already tucked in.
“I’m going to walk the perimeter of the house. I’ll return soon,” he said.
She bolted upright as he walked out of their bedroom, not quite believing he was leaving the house until she heard the front door close. He never left her alone inside after dark unless there was some kind of emergency. True fear flooded her and she fought down the ensuing panic. He just wanted to take a walk in the woods. That wasn’t unusual, just the timing. Surely it didn’t mean anything.
Three nights later, when he walked out again, she had had enough. They had barely spoken the past two days and he hadn’t even tried to make love to her. She missed his touch. She missed the man she had fallen in love with. Like a jolt realization hit her. She had no doubt he loved her. It was in every touch, every smile, every thoughtful gesture. But what about him? Did he realize he was her world?
“No,” she whispered aloud.
How could he? Not only had she never told him, she had betrayed his love by actually wanting to leave. She was such a fool.
She rolled over in their bed to face the door just as she had every night. Waiting impatiently for him to walk in, and fearing a night when he didn’t. Plans of how to prove her love for him ran through her mind. After tonight he would never doubt again.
Bjorn walked slowly to his front door, following the path lit by the full moon filtering through the canopy. He absently rubbed at the pain in his chest but knew it was nothing physical. How long could he go on like this? How long would he keep pretending he had a mate in the woman who reluctantly shared his bed? After the meeting with Sandulf he had hoped things would change, but the truth had hit him like a ton of bricks. She was only staying because of the job. She was a loyal, caring woman who would always do whatever she could for the betterment of interspecies relations. He loved that about her, but he didn’t know if it was enough.
In his mind’s eye the years stretch long ahead of him. Years of just the two of them in his home hidden in the woods. No children’s laughter to brighten their days. No love from her to fill his heart. Could he do it? Always her well-being came first. It was an unquestioned instinct bred into his bones. But could he truly keep her happy when he was filled with sorrow?
He stepped onto the porch and took a deep breath before opening the front door. She would already be asleep, or pretending to be. It no longer mattered to him. Each night when he slipped into bed her back was turned. He had made no move to hold or touch her.
The first thing he noticed, as he closed the door and looked around, was the fire burning in the fireplace. Had she gotten cold? He frowned at the thought. It was cool outside but not overly so, and his house was warm. He stepped over to check the fire and noticed the pallet of blankets spread out before it. There were two pillows there as well.
Is she planning on sleeping here? Or telling me I must?
Neither prospect pleased him. He might not hold her as they slept anymore, but he still wanted her in his bed…with him.
He was frowning down at the make-shift bed, hands on hips as he considered what it meant, when she walked in. He didn’t realize she was there at first, not until she touched him. He startled and turned to face her, nearly jumping again when he saw her nakedness.
“I know it’s not really cold enough for a fire, but I though it set the mood,” she said softly.
Deft fingers began unbuttoning his plaid shirt and had it halfway off before he thought to stop her. He gently grasped her wrists and held them against his chest.
“What is this?” he asked.
“I want to touch you,” she said.
He let her pull her hands free and finish. Once his plaid shirt and the t-shirt beneath were gone, she went down to her knees and unlaced his boots. He raised each foot to let her remove his boots and socks. When she unbuckled his belt and opened his jeans he nearly stopped her again. It had been four days since he’d made love to her and his body was tense with wanting. They already knew each other well. When she stripped off his jeans and briefs in one swift tug, she didn’t seem at all surprised by the erection facing her.
“I’ve missed touching you,” she said.
He closed his eyes and growled low in his throat as she pressed her moist tongue to his skin. It had been so long since she’d held him in her mouth, he knew he wouldn’t last long through the bliss.
“Min kärlek, easy now. It is too good almost.”
His accent had thickened at her ministrations until he worried she wouldn’t understand him, but she smiled and ran her tongue over his shaft again.
“Let me play,” she said.
He growled again but made no move to stop her as she cupped his scrotum in one soft palm and gripped the base of his cock with the other. She did play then, using fingers and tongue. She licked and suckled until he knew he wouldn’t last another second.
He eased her head away with a gentle hand and went down on his knees before her. The firelight gave her skin a soft glow, radiant and ethereal.
“You are so lovely, min kärlek. My love.”
She smiled and it lit up the room as if the sun was shining through every window. He eased her to her back and kissed her softly. Her moans filled the room as his hands roamed her body. Breasts and stomach, thighs and mons, all felt the pressure of his fingertips at play. He sat up to see her writhing beneath him and was ready to explode right then. She was more than prepared for his entry. He eased her thighs open with his hands, rubbing his palms up and down her slick skin. She moaned again and opened her arms.
“Now, Bjorn. Now, please.”
Though it took every ounce of willpower within him, he pulled back and looked over his shoulder, intending to rush to their bedroom for the one thing she seemed to have forgotten.
“No.” She grabbed him by the waist to keep him from rising.
“The herbs, my love. You’ve forgotten the herbs.”
Condoms were not something he could easily obtain when they left the city. So he had a potion he could ingest shortly before sex to ensure his seed wouldn’t create new life. It wasn’t guaranteed anymore than traditional human methods, but so far it had worked.
“No, my love,” she said. “Not this time.”
He froze and stared down at her as comprehension came slowly. First she had used the word love. Then she said they wouldn’t use the potion this time? His pulse jumped at the thought and he leaned over her, elbows on either side of her head so they were a breath apart.
“No?” he asked, feeling as if it was the most important question of his life.
“No,” she replied with a smile.
She ran a finger over his brow, down his jaw line to his lips. He kissed her fingertip and fought down the sting of tears.
“I love you, Bjorn Berendsen, and hurting you has been the biggest mistake of my life. Please…forgive me?”
Emotion welled up, choking him until he couldn’t voice a reply. He kissed her with all the love he had to give instead and she met him full force.
“I love you, I love you…” she whispered between kisses.
“I’ll never tire of hearing that,” he finally said.
He made love to her slowly, savoring every thrust, every moan and cry from her lips. Knowing she could carry his child by morning filled him with so much satisfaction it was a wonder he lasted long enough for her to climax first. She hugged him tightly between her thighs as he filled her with his seed, and whispered his love to her over and over.
“I know. I love you too,” she said.
For the first time he truly believed it and drifted to sleep with her in his arms, both dreaming of their new beginning.