Authors: T. S. Joyce
Diem Daye bit the edge of her thumbnail as she stared out the window of the heavily tinted car. The driver, Mason, glanced at her in the rearview mirror for the tenth time since they’d left the house. Usually, he was nearly as stoic as her father, but today, traces of worry darkened his eyes.
Father patted her leg from the seat beside her, and she jumped. He never touched her. Touch was a no-no for her kind. Or at least that’s what Father had instilled in her since birth.
“Everything will be okay,” he murmured, his silver eyes tight as he brushed his fingers through the sides of his dark hair.
If she didn’t know any better, she’d say Father was nervous, but that was impossible. Emotions were forbidden.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Father inhaled deeply and looked out the other window, refused to answer. Shocker. Maybe he would’ve tried harder at the conversation if she was one of her half-brothers. She was just a woman, though. Nothing more than a breeder. That thought left a sour feeling in her stomach.
Diem clenched her hands in her lap, but Father looked at them and frowned. “None of that, love. Have some pride in what you are and control your emotions.”
How many times had she heard that in her twenty-five years? Probably about a billion. He called it “controlling her emotions.” She called it “maintaining a constant bitch face.” A practice that hadn’t gained her any friends in college, but Father was unconcerned with such things. Above everything, she had to act her station and cast away those pestering emotions she’d inherited from her mother. Father hated that she was harder to train then her half-brothers.
You’re female. You’re expendable.
Closing her eyes against the onslaught of those unsettling thoughts, she clenched her hands again, only to be scolded once more by Father. She was terrible at this. Always had been, probably always would be.
As Mason pulled them into a dirty, make-shift parking lot, Diem craned her neck and tried to get a glimpse of the mysterious lumberjack crew who was helping Father manage the land he so loved. He talked about them almost as if they were his sons, and she felt like she knew each of them already. Tagan, the alpha of this crew of bear shifters. Kellen, his second, then Denison, Brighton, Bruiser, Haydan, and Drew. And if Father’s mutterings were correct, several of the shifters had picked up mates in recent months.
Diem ran her father’s books and handled many of his business affairs. She was good with numbers, and he’d trusted her more and more with his work as she got older.
This morning, he’d given her the shock of a lifetime when he’d told her she would meet the Ashe Crew today. He’d said it was so she could get an up-close look at the logging side of the mountains. He’d told her it would be good for her to meet the men who worked so hard for them.
She’d be lying if she didn’t say she was ridiculously curious about the simple lives of these men.
Mason put the car in park and got out, then opened her door. She waited patiently as he opened the door for her father. From where she stood, she could see the massive equipment. From ten minutes of research this morning, she could identify the Titan machine settled on the edge of a cleared flat area with a long arm for trimming logs as a processor. A skyline dove from the ancient tree it was tied to, all the way down the slope of the mountain the Ashe Crew was clearing. The throaty sound of working machinery filled the air, and she coughed delicately at the scent of gasoline and oil.
“This way,” Father said, barely brushing his fingers against the lower curve of her back. Two touches in one day. This had to be a record.
“Better watch it, Father, or you’ll be hugging me like a simpleton in no time.”
Father yanked his hand away from her and narrowed his eyes. “It seems I forgot myself for a moment. Forgive me.”
“It was a joke.” One wasted on him since he didn’t seem to have a mind for humor, and he seemed to despise that she, on occasion, did.
Father walked primly in front of her, clad in stiff dark dress slacks, a matching jacket, and highly polished shoes. Against the backdrop of the two yellow hard-hat-wearing men who stood near one of the machines, he looked utterly out of place.
One of the men turned wary eyes on them, as if he’d heard their approach from all the way over there. His eyes were a blazing blue color that looked alluring and dangerous all at once.
“Tagan,” Father greeted him. “So nice to see you again.”
Tagan’s eyes tightened at the corners. “Is it?”
Father gave him a cold warning look, one Diem had received many times in her youth. “Careful now. This wasn’t your choice. It was his.”
“No, he agreed to it. He didn’t seek out this deal. Is this her?”
Father gestured her forward, and Diem frowned at the confusing way they spoke to each other.
“Tagan, alpha of the Ashe Crew, this is my only daughter, Diem. I trust you with her safety.”
Her safety on the job site? Okay. But she was only supposed to be here an hour to see how things worked. God, Father was so overprotective. She tried to mentally fan the heat in her cheeks as she shook Tagan’s calloused hand.
“Where is he?” Father asked.
Diem pulled her hand from Tagan’s and stared at a dirt smudge across her palm. Wiping the dust off, she asked, “Where is who?”
Tagan’s smile was void of humor. “He goes by Bruiser, and if you keep calling him Horace, he’s likely to revolt on you. Best not test him. He’s been in a foul mood since he came back from Colorado. Can’t imagine why.”
“Horace is a fine name. A respectable one. One passed down from his ancestors.”
“Damon,” Tagan gritted out.
“Bring him up. My daughter is ready.”
Tagan’s dark eyebrows arched high. “Ready as in, you want to do this right now?” He made a show of looking around the metal-cluttered clearing. “Here?”
“I have the paperwork in order, and I’ll be here as a witness.”
“Father, what’s going on?” Warning bells had been blaring in her head since Horace Keller’s name had entered the conversation. It sounded so familiar.
“Please tell me you’ve at least talked to her about this,” Tagan said, words growing growlier by the second.
Diem shook her head, baffled. “Told me what?”
Father’s eyes had completely shut down. Not a muscle twitched in his face as he stared blankly at Tagan.
The bright-eyed alpha turned to her and said, “You’re getting married today. Didn’t you know? Your father made a deal with one of my crew members, and you are the spoils.”
Her mouth dropped open with questions she was too shocked to string together coherently. “What?” She swung her gaze to Father, who was now meeting her eyes just fine. “Please tell me what he’s saying isn’t true.”
Time? “Father, you can’t be serious. This is your idea of joking, right?”
“I’ve put it off as long as I was comfortable with, but you are of an age where it is time to fulfill your duty. Our survival depends on it.”
survival?” She screamed the last part, sure, but the words he was saying were lies. He meant
survival. She was as good as dead now. “Please don’t do this. Not now. Give me more time. A few years, and then I’ll marry who you wish. Or let me get to know him first and see if he is right for me.”
“Enough!” Father swung his attention to Tagan. “Can you excuse us? My daughter has forgotten her place.”
Tagan’s eyes went round. “Okay.” He blinked slowly and began to back away, but paused. “You know, Mr. Daye, if someone ever told my mate she’d ‘forgotten her place,’ I imagine Brooke would shred that person and squat on their carcass. How you talk to women in your family is your own business, but in front of me, that shit doesn’t fly.”
“You sure have grown bold since I last saw you,” Father growled out.
“I don’t like what’s being done here, and I sure as hell don’t like preforming ceremonies that tether two people together who don’t want to be tethered. I’m aware of how it was done in the old days, but my crew is different. We mate for love, and we mate for life.”
Father yanked Diem’s arm and led her away from Tagan. Touch number three for the day, and lucky fuckin’ her.
“So you’re ready for me to die? You’re that tired of me?”
Some emotion she didn’t recognize slashed across Father’s normally cold features. “This has nothing to do with that, and you know it. You’ve been told what your duties would entail from the day you were born, Diem. I stalled this for four years so you could attend your schooling, work, and feel like you’ve led a full life. You’re lucky you don’t have to find love like these lesser shifters. Love is dangerous and bloody, and it brings destruction in its wake. Love is what killed our kind.”
“What does that mean?” Her voice had wrenched up to a yell, but screw it all. Father was trying to marry her off to a stranger.
“You are the last of us,” Father hissed out, a long, unsettling growl rattling from his chest.
“No, I’m not. You’re still here. Your sons are still here.”
“Your half-brothers haven’t bred successfully. The genetic pool for them doesn’t exist for viable offspring. You’re our last hope.”
“You mean I’m the last sacrifice.” She hated the defeat that was spreading through her chest, filling her with loss. If she’d had any question before about her value, it was put to rest now. She wasn’t worth anything more than her ability to breed. Tears streamed down her face, and Father frowned in disapproval. Let him. She and her untidy emotions wouldn’t be his problem much longer. “Fine.”
She swallowed down bile at such a backhanded compliment, the only ones he seemed capable of giving.
“Now,” Father said, straightening his spine. “Go freshen your face. Today is the most honorable day of your life.”
“Yes, sir,” she muttered bitterly.
Seated in the car again, she slammed the door beside her and let the sob sitting in her throat escape. Her life was over. And even worse than that, she’d never had a breakthrough with Father. He’d never learned to show her that she pleased him or that he cared about her. He’d remained just as cold from the moment she’d been born to the moment he’d ordered her death sentence.
Mason made to get out of the car, but she asked, “Did you know?”
With a sigh, he settled back behind the wheel and nodded, eyes on his clasped hands in his lap.
She looked down in dismay at her starched, black business suit. Fitting for a funeral. “And you couldn’t warn me I was walking into an arranged marriage?”
Mason shook his head. He’d been her bodyguard in college, hired by Father to keep the human interaction down to a minimum. She’d grown to trust him over the years, but this was a monumental betrayal.
“I packed a bag for you,” he whispered. “It’s in the trunk.”
“Are you here to witness?”
“No.” His tone turned to that of disgust. “To do so would say I support this, and I don’t. Boar shifters, like bear shifters, mate for love. I know it is different for your kind, but you, Diem, are different, too. Try to find solace in your mate. Give him a chance.”
She huffed a humorless laugh. “What’s the point of that, Mason? You know what’ll happen. What’s the point in getting close to someone at the end?”
Mason shrugged miserably and got out of the car. When his door was closed, Diem’s shoulders sagged, and she stared out the window at the Ashe Crew as they crested the top of the hill together. She was going to be a part of them for a short while. For some reason, that thought made her even sadder.
The last over the ridge was a man who was larger than the rest. His shoulders were broad, straining against the sweat-dampened white T-shirt he wore. His eyes were intense and dark, and the short hair that stuck out from under his yellow hard hat was dark to match. Chords of muscle delved from under his jaw, down through his neck, and into a defined line between his stony pecs. His waist tapered into a V shape, and hole-riddled jeans clung to his powerful legs. Scuffed work boots kicked up swirls of dust as he strode after his crew. She couldn’t tell from here if he was handsome or not because of the unhappiness etched into his face. If she’d had any question before now about him being Bruiser, her betrothed, well, that disappeared the second he threw his hard hat against the processer. The word
echoed off the mountain a moment later, and she couldn’t help the tiny smile that took her lips. He didn’t want this any more than she did, and that made this situation a little better. Maybe they could find common ground by loathing her father together.
Ripping her gaze away from the rugged stranger, she opened a mirror she kept in her purse and blotted her eyes dry with a tissue. And like she’d done a thousand times before, she composed her face to look just like her lineage required. She wiped all emotion clear, leaving only the dispassionate blank slate she hated most.
Today was her wedding day—the most important day of a dragon’s life.
Bruiser was about thirty seconds away from an uncontrolled Change. His body was practically humming with his need to escape what was happening. He’d thought Damon Daye would give him a couple of days before he pushed his daughter onto him, but nope. Six hours after he’d arrived home from Colorado, and here the man was, collecting his due.
Damon stood at the edge of the tree line, hands clasped in front of him, chin lifted high and proud, dark hair gone a regal gray at the temples. His dark suit looked hot as hell on this Montana summer day.
“Well,” Bruiser said, holding his hands up, “where is she?”
“Good,” Damon said with the only smile the man seemed to be able to manage—an empty one. “You’re in a hurry to marry her.”
“Or in a hurry to get this done with before I change my mind and you eat me.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Denison muttered, helping his mate, Danielle, over a felled log. “Can someone explain this to me? Because last I heard, Bruiser wasn’t keen on taking a mate, and from the way he’s been cursing for the last five minutes straight, it seems he still isn’t.”
“I told you I would be the witness,” Damon said to Tagan.
“Yeah, well, if I’m getting myself hitched, my crew is going to witness this train wreck too,” Bruiser said, matching Damon’s cold smile. “They’re family, you see, and this little ceremony says she’s going to be a part of this family, too. What’s her name, by the way?”
Drew guffawed as his shoulder length blond, Viking-looking hair waved in the wind. “You don’t even know her name? Bruiser, come on, man. This is some bullshittery, and you know it.”
“Whatever,” Bruiser grumbled. “You look like Fabio.”
“Thank you,” Drew said through a flattered smile. The dick.
“Diem,” a soft voice sounded from behind him.
Bruiser turned and froze. The woman was not at all what he’d expected of the dragon’s daughter. She was shorter than he’d imagined, and her hair was raven’s feather black. Her eyes were as dead as her father’s, but the color was that of fine whiskey. There were no frown lines or smile lines, nothing that told him if she laughed easily. Her skin was creamy and smooth like porcelain, as if she’d never been out in the sun a day in her life. The curve of her full lips showed no passion as she studied him in turn.
Straightening to his full height, Bruiser cleared his throat. “You aren’t hideous.”
“Thank you.” Diem dragged her gaze down to his chest, then back up to his eyes. “Neither are you.”
“This is so romantic,” Danielle squealed from beside Denison.
“Seriously?” Drew muttered, ruffling her hair.
“Let’s get this over with,” Diem said in an empty tone.
Worry slithered through Bruiser’s gut. She wasn’t like the other women in the Ashe Crew. She seemed disconnected from everything, like Damon. As if the chip that allowed her to feel anything had been turned off. He hadn’t any expectations about a marriage like this, but he would’ve rather Diem been plain and warm, than beautiful and cold.
“Can I talk to you before we do this?” he asked low.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Bruiser grabbed her hand before he could talk himself out of it and pulled her toward his truck. She allowed it. And she could pretend she was unaffected all she wanted, but her hand was just as shaky as his.
“I’m sorry,” he rushed out.
She skidded to a stop and blinked her eyes wider. “What? Why?”
“Because this is my doing. I made a deal with your dad, and it was bullshit of me to do without seeing what you thought of all this.”
“Oh. It doesn’t matter what I think.”
Bruiser took a step back. Her words stung like a slap. “Of course, it does. It’s going to be me and you now, and your dad and I didn’t include you in this decision. I fucked up, and now we’re both in this position that I shouldn’t have ever—”
“What kind of deal did you make for me?”
Bruiser opened his mouth, then closed it, surprised at the turn in conversation. “I asked your dad to help me save my half-brothers, their mates, and their kids from IESA.”
Diem’s dark and elegant eyebrow twitched. “The International Exchange of Supernatural Affairs was after your family?”
“Well”—Bruiser jerked his head—“they’re kind of my family. It’s a long story. Look, I couldn’t save them on my own, and I got desperate, and you were made part of the deal. It was wrong, and I don’t know how to fix it.”
“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.
“At least I’m being given away for a good reason. Is your family safe?”
“The Ashe Crew is more my family more than the Breck Crew, but yeah, they are safe.”
“Because of this deal?”
“Okay, then ask me.” Her face was still stoic, her lips barely moving as she talked.
“Aw, shit, okay.” Bruiser ran his hands through his cropped hair, as if that would fix it after sweating under a hard hat all day. With a steadying breath, he knelt on one knee and ignored Danielle, Skyler, and Everly’s
in unison. “Diem Daye.” What was he supposed to say to a stranger? “I know we didn’t get here through conventional ways, but I’m in this. I’ll protect you with my life and keep a roof over your head. A shitty trailer roof with leaks in it, but it’s still a roof, and you won’t go cold or hungry a day in your life. Everything that I have will be yours. I’ll never let anyone hurt you. Will you marry me?”
Sadness washed through the clear brown of her eyes for a moment before she replaced it with a blank stare again. “You’ll be the one to hurt me, Bruiser, but I’d rather it be you than anyone else. Yes, I’ll marry you. I’m in this, too.”
Her words bothered him. Not just because they were monotone and unfeeling, but because she’d said he would hurt her, and he sure as shit wouldn’t ever hurt a woman.
“I now pronounce you man and wife,” Tagan said.
Startled, Bruiser jumped and twisted around.
Tagan was leaned up against the back of the truck, looking as unhappy as Bruiser felt right now. “Sign the paperwork Mr. Daye has so generously drawn up, and then we’re cuttin’ out early.” He turned his glare on Damon and said, “I’m sure you won’t mind us leaving before the daylight is done today, seeing as how we have your daughter’s wedding reception to throw together. You’re welcome to come.” Tagan’s tone said he wasn’t welcome at all.
“I’d rather he not,” Diem said as she scribbled her name on the marriage certificate in angry, scrawled letters. “His determination to give me away says I’m Bruiser’s now, not his.”
“Well, I… It’s not like I own you,” Bruiser stumbled out, but one icy look from Diem had him shutting his pie hole real quick.
The low rumbling sound that said Damon Daye was losing his patience rattled out, vibrating against Bruiser’s skin and electrifying the hairs on his forearms. When he listened closer, it seemed part of that sound was coming from his new bride. Oh damn, Diem was scary. And hot.
“As you wish,” Damon said with a curt nod, then turned on his fancy heel and strode toward the pristine car waiting for him. He stood by as the driver struggled to pull a large suitcase from the trunk. When the luggage was settled in the dirt, Damon gave Bruiser a dead-eyed look and said, “Congratulations to the both of you.” Posture ramrod straight, he tapped his foot as he waited for his door to be opened.
The entire Ashe Crew watched the car pull away in stunned silence. Bruiser pressed the paperwork against the side of his truck, then signed it, shocked that he’d really gone through with this. He was a married man.
Tagan slid him a sad shake of his head, then said, “You can kiss your bride now.”
Diem’s breath hitched, and she froze. “Now? In front of everyone?”
Bruiser frowned and lowered his voice. “Haven’t you kissed a man before?”
“Have you met my father?”
Bruiser snorted a laugh. Now that was funny right there. He could see her point. Damon was a freaking dragon shifter and about the scariest man he’d ever had the non-pleasure of meeting. Damon was probably still digesting the leader of IESA, so yeah, any boys trying to get in his daughter’s pants would’ve been strictly dealt with. But she’d said the joke in that emotionless voice of hers. “I can’t tell if you’re kidding.”
She cast the tiniest eye roll he’d ever seen from a woman and huffed a sigh. “If we must do this, let’s get it over with.”
She apparently wasn’t one for romance, and he couldn’t figure out if he liked that because he was going to save money on buying her flowers over the years, or if he hated it because she was ripping the fun out of being with a woman.
“Kiss her, kiss her,” Drew chanted.
“Shut up,” Bruiser ordered before the others caught on. It had been a few months since he’d kissed anyone, and he’d definitely never been a woman’s first.
He flared his nostrils, inhaling her scent to commit it to memory. Vanilla and fruit shampoo, and something tangy. She was his now, for better or worse. Drawing up in front of Diem, he brushed her long, dark hair over her shoulder and cupped her cheek. Her chest heaved, and her eyes widened slightly at his touch, proof that she wasn’t made of stone. Her lips parted as he leaned forward.
Bruiser closed his eyes at the last moment and pressed his lips onto hers. He could’ve pulled away immediately, should’ve maybe, but her lips softened against his. Fingers in her hair, he drew even closer to her. Where he’d expected her to be cold because of the creature that dwelled inside of her, she was warm instead. Inviting. Enticing and intriguing, and she smelled so damned good. He brushed his tongue along the closed seam of her mouth, asking gently.
As she opened her mouth slightly, her body lost some of its rigidity against him, and he lifted his other hand to her other cheek as she became precious to him.
Slipping his tongue against hers for the first time, he tasted her, and all the fear and tension left his shoulders. God, this was amazing.
She jerked back. “Stop,” she said on a breath. “Stop, stop, stop. Something’s…that feels…just stop.”
“Okay,” he said, disappointed that she was shrinking away from his touch.
The Crew was clapping and whistling, and it was nice of them to do so considering what this was—a forced pairing.
Diem shrugged her shoulders up to her ear lobes and dropped her gaze. Which was strange that she’d make a submissive gesture when he knew the animal inside of her was much scarier than any grizzly or falcon that made up the Ashe Crew.
The mysteries around Diem Daye were piling up by the second.
Without another word, she wove through the gathered crowd, dodging hugs and claps on her back, and made her way toward the lonely suitcase sitting in the dirt.
Bruiser jogged to catch up, determined to help her carry the gargantuan luggage.
“Don’t,” she snapped when he reached for the handle.
“Because I’m sick of everyone doing everything for me.”
“Okay,” he drawled out, frowning so deep it hurt his face. “I won’t help unless you ask for it.”
Her face smoothed to look glasslike once again. “Thank you. Which one is your car?”
“Ain’t no cars here, D.”
He mirrored her empty smile. “I like pet names.”
“I’m not your pet.”
“But if you were,” Denison hollered across the clearing, damn his good hearing, “what kind of pet might you be?”
“Denny, not now,” Bruiser called back.
“Because I saw your pupils go all weird-shaped like our pet goat, Bo, so are you a goat shifter?”
“What? No!” Diem shouted with an offended snort. “I’m a dragon.”
Denison’s single laugh cracked and echoed off the mountains. “Okay, but really. So, like, a cat or something?” He muttered, “Do tigers have those weird-shaped pupils?” as an aside to Danielle. “Or a snake?” he yelled.
Diem just stared at Denison, but hell if Bruiser was going to explain away his crew’s inappropriate questions. It was only going to get worse the better they got to know her. He gave them a month tops before they were charting her damned menstrual cycle. She had to learn how to ignore them, or she was going to lead a very unpleasant life in the Asheland Mobile Park.
He pointed to the mud-covered truck they’d been married next to. “That one’s mine. Ours,” he corrected himself with a shake of his head. This was going to take some getting used to.
Diem’s eyes tightened ever so slightly.
“You don’t approve?”
“It’s a shit-wagon.”
“Don’t talk about my truck like that. She’ll up and give me a flat this week if you keep bustin’ on her like that. And she’s not a shit-wagon. Never once has she stalled out or got bogged down while we were muddin’. That highfalutin city car you drove in on wouldn’t last a day out here.”
“Please,” she muttered. “It made it here, didn’t it?”
isn’t the final destination, D. Asheland Mobile Park is, and we have a shit-ton of washed out mountain roads and switchbacks to navigate to get there. If your fancy dancy driver tried to maneuver your snob-mobile all the way down, you’d go over the cliff and be a little splat on the rocks below.”