Authors: T. S. Joyce
Diem ignored him as she stumbled toward his awesome-wagon, heels rolling at almost a ninety degree angle on the rocks.
“I hope you packed tennis shoes ’cause those pretty spikes you’re wearing are sexy as hell, but they aren’t going to work where we’re going.” They weren’t even working here, and the ground was relatively even.
“Do you always talk this much?”
“Fantastic,” she muttered. “And I have no idea what is packed for me since I didn’t pack my suitcase.”
“You had someone else pack it for you?”
“I didn’t know until we got here that I wasn’t going back home. Mason, my driver slash bodyguard, packed it.”
“Wait, your bodyguard packed your underwear and everything?”
“Panties, and I suppose.”
Something green and ugly ignited in his stomach. “You don’t mind your driver touching your intimates? Wait.” Bruiser tugged her arm until she turned her dead gaze on him. “Do you have feelings for him? Please tell me I didn’t come between you and someone you actually cared for.”
“What? No! He’s a boar shifter.”
Like that explained anything away. “And?”
“And he’s twice my age.”
“Age is just a number,” he said, wanting to know for sure.
Her delicate nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply. “I don’t have feelings for anyone. Not a single person on this earth. That’s how it is with my kind, so don’t expect me to moon over you. No, you didn’t come between me and some one true love. You only came between me and my freedom.”
Whoa, what those words did to his middle. His guts burned as he swallowed her detached admission.
“I didn’t mean to steal your freedom. I just wanted to help my family.”
“I know.” She tried and tried again to heft the suitcase into the bed of the truck, failing until her arms looked shaky.
“Can I help now?” he asked, leaning against the side.
Diem blew a damp strand of hair out of her face and conceded. “Fine.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t called her names, my truck would be kinder to you,” he said through a hidden grin as he lowered the tailgate.
“Well, that’s handy,” she muttered, lifting the suitcase into the back on the first try this time.
He tried to open her door for her, but she glared at him. At least, he thought she did. Her face didn’t really change. So he threw his hands up in surrender and muttered, “Don’t breathe fire on me.” Then he jogged around the front of his truck and settled behind the wheel.
“I don’t breathe fire.”
“Bullshit. I watched Damon burn an entire clearing a few days ago.”
“My father can. I’m not a full dragon. My mother was a bear. I don’t have the fire, and neither do my half-brothers, who are also part bear.”
Bruiser swung a shocked gaze to her. “You’re half bear?”
“My mother was a black bear. Father got lucky that I was born with his shifter instead of hers.”
“Wow.” He blinked back his surprise and turned the engine. “I never in a million years would’ve guessed Damon would fall for a black bear. He seems so…uptight.”
“He didn’t fall for my mother. I told you, we don’t do love. He paid her lots of money to breed with her, and she left two days after I was born, much richer for having known my father. She was a paid broodmare. Nothing more and nothing less.”
“That’s really fucked up,” he muttered, pulling around Denison’s Bronco. “No wonder you don’t believe in love.”
“It’s not about believing in it, you silly man. Dragon’s just don’t feel like lesser shifters do. Love doesn’t exist for us.”
“Lesser shifters, like bears? Like half the blood running through your veins? And before you get all high and mighty with me, know that my mother was a dragon.”
“Oh,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you apologizing for?”
“Because she died.”
Bruiser’s heart rate kicked up to a gallop, his chest thumping painfully. “What do you mean?”
“You killed her.”
He cast her a horror-filled glance to see if what she said was some sick joke, but she stared blankly ahead, as if the words that had tumbled from her mouth weren’t akin to knives against his soul.
“Are you always like this?”
“Like what?” she asked in that echoing empty voice of hers.
“Are you so dead inside that you can say things like that and not regret your words when you hurt people?”
“They weren’t meant to hurt you, Bruiser. Tell me I’m wrong, and I’ll apologize. Did you kill your mother?”
He swallowed hard and concentrated on not steering them over the steep embankment that lined the gravel road that would lead them back to the trailer park. Out of the side of his vision, he could see her staring at him, awaiting an answer.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was born, and she died having me, so I guess I killed her.”
Diem nodded once, as if she’d won.
And it was in this moment that Bruiser realized maybe he couldn’t warm Diem up or show her what it was like to care for someone.
Not if her heart had already grown irreversibly cold.
Diem wished she could take the words back. She’d put them out there to punish Bruiser for winning her as a favor. To hurt him for what he would do to her, but when she’d said he had killed his mother and then watched his handsome face melt with devastation, she’d almost got sick in the cab of his crappy old truck.
But he deserved it. He was practically strutting around like their new marriage was something to be proud of while she was being destroyed from the inside out. Father didn’t love her, didn’t care about her at all, and this man had helped him to break her heart.
But…he was kind and had soft eyes. And his lips had been gentle against hers, not demanding as she’d imagined the first kiss with her mate would’ve been. Especially from a man as big and dangerous-looking as Bruiser.
God, what was she doing? All this wishy washy guilt and for what?
None of it mattered.
She didn’t matter.
As the hurt in his eyes flashed across her mind again, she winced and looked out the window to hide the emotion.
The woods here, just like her home with Father in the mountains, were breathtaking. Sure, many of the trees were dead and brown from the beetle infestation, but there was still enough greenspace that she was awed by the beauty of the wild land. Down in the valley, she got her first glimpse of the Asheland Mobile Park.
It was exactly how she’d expected it to be, worn down, ratty homes in a couple of rows, bisected by a dirt road. What did surprise her was that the yards were all perfectly manicured and mowed. Granted, they were one hundred percent weeds and wild flowers and not the soft Bermuda that graced Father’s sizable yard, but at least the bears here seemed to take some pride in their dwellings.
“We’re home,” Bruiser said softly as he pulled in front of a trailer with the number 1010 nailed crookedly beside the dilapidated front door.
Without another word, he exited the truck and snatched her suitcase from the back, then stomped up the front stairs and disappeared inside.
The unstained and splintering stairs creaked under her footfall as she approached the open doorway.
A light flicked on inside, and she stepped into a musty singlewide. It was actually much nicer than she’d imagined it would be from the outside. A living area took up most of the main room, and a kitchen adorned with white cabinets and natural wood counters was to the left.
When she took a step forward, her foot sank into a squishy place in the fake wood floors. Lovely. Bruiser had disappeared with her suitcase into a room on the other side of the kitchen, but when she moved to join him, a brown rodent ran across the floor.
She narrowed her eyes at the creature and called out, “Bruiser, there’s a mouse in here.” Who was apparently not afraid of people.
“That’s Nards,” came the muffled reply.
“Yeah.” Bruiser sauntered back into the kitchen and leaned his hips against the counter by the baby-diarrhea-colored sink. “Nards, like balls. Look at his giant testicles. Denison named him.”
“Of course he did.”
“Look, why don’t you get off your high horse and be thankful that you’ll have a roommate. Now you won’t be all alone in here.”
“Wait, I thought you were my roommate.”
“No, I’m your reluctant and apparently unnecessary husband. That don’t mean we have to live together. My trailer is next door on the left if you need anything.”
“You don’t want to live with me?” She was baffled. Perhaps she’d imagined marriage all wrong. Maybe it really was just fucking and then going about the day like they didn’t know each other.
“You just called me a murderer.” He gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, then dropped the expression. He looked the way she did in the mirror when she practiced being a good dragon. That look on his face blanketed her with a chill. “It’s clear you want to be married about as much as I do, so let’s just make this easy on both of us and try to be friends.”
“Friends,” she repeated low.
“Yeah, like your dad and mom were.”
“They weren’t friends. They were a business arrangement.”
“You’re being insensitive and mean now.”
“Or,” he growled out, approaching her slowly, “I’m tapping into my mother’s dragon lineage and using it as an excuse to say hurtful things.”
Touché big, sexy, irritating, hillbilly bear.
Diem held her ground as Bruiser invaded her space.
“You can feel, can’t you?” he asked in that husky, deep voice that she was already becoming attuned to.
Diem blinked slowly, deliberately. “No.”
Bruiser hooked his finger under her chin and lifted. Then he leaned forward, eyes daring her to run, and kissed her. This wasn’t like their wedding kiss. It was rougher and felt different. Where their first kiss had brought on a disconcerting tingling sensation between her legs, this one warmed her from the middle downward. His jaw moved as he plunged his tongue into her mouth, and he gripped the back of her head so she couldn’t escape. A helpless and mortifying moan escaped her as he eased her against the wall. His hand slipped from her face to her waist, and with a powerful grip, he pulled her hips against his.
His hard erection brushed her belly, and her stomach quivered with an anticipation she didn’t understand. Breeding with a rutting male wasn’t supposed to be pleasurable.
“Now do you feel anything?” he rasped against her lips as he pulled her knees around his waist and rubbed against a shockingly sensitive place between her thighs.
“No,” she said on a sigh.
He leaned forward and drank her in, teeth grazing her lips. His hands were so strong, holding her up against the wall like this, as if she weighed nothing at all.
“Okay, okay,” she murmured, stepping down.
“Okay, you feel something?”
“No, okay you seem ready. Let’s get this over with.”
His eyes narrowed, but she turned her back on him and kicked off her heels. She padded into the bedroom he’d set her suitcase in and took in the thick blue curtains and queen-size bed. It looked clean enough if she ignored Nards, who marched by her bare foot with a cracker in his mouth.
Her hands shook so badly, she clenched and unclenched them before she began unbuttoning her jacket, then her blouse.
“You know,” Bruiser said from behind her. “You’ve used that phrase three times today already—‘let’s get this over with.’”
“You don’t approve?”
“Hell no, I don’t approve. What are you doing?”
She shimmied out of her shirt and then pushed her dress pants and panties to the floor. Bruiser crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. Closing her eyes tightly in embarrassment, she unhooked her bra in the back and let it fall down her arms. Her knees were knocking so she settled herself onto the bed and spread her legs wide.
Bruiser’s eyebrows arched impossibly high as he raked a hungry gaze over every inch of her bare skin. His eyes had gone bright, and a gold-green color that was nothing shy of unsettling.
“I repeat, what are you doing?”
“I’m ready to breed.” She looked pointedly at the huge bulge fighting against the seam of his jeans. “It looks like you are, too.”
He scrunched his nose up until the laugh lines by his eyes crinkled. “Breed?”
Heat flooded up her neck and burned her cheeks. Fury filled her, and she clapped her knees together, denying him further visual access to her lady bits. “Yes, breed. That’s what you signed up for when you made this deal with my father. It isn’t happily ever after, Bruiser. It’s fuck me, get me with child, and move on with your life.”
“Move on with my life?” His words came out gravelly and low, sending chills up her arms. “You are my life now! I’m not going to breed you, woman. I’m not going to fuck you to have a kid with you. If and when we’re together like this, it won’t be a let’s-get-this-over-with kind of moment. I want you begging to have me inside of you, and not for some technicality fuck so you can have a little baby dragon. I’m not just a dick!”
“Yes you are!” she screamed, tears burning her eyes as she sat up and pulled the comforter against her body. “Didn’t you realize that when you signed the contract for my soul? Didn’t you ask my father why he chose you? The poor bastard lumberjack son of Titus Keller. Your mother was a dragon. My father picked a mate based on the probability of us making viable dragon young.”
Bruiser’s face fell utterly blank with shock. Slowly, he shook his head. “I’m not going to fuck you.”
“Yes you will! You will, and you’ll love it, and then you’ll watch me wither away to nothing to have your child. You’ll feel bad for a few weeks because of what you had to do. Maybe you’ll leave flowers on my grave when you think of me. Then you’ll move on like I never existed at all. It’s what you do.” A sob wrenched from her throat. “Males are all the same.”
Bruiser rushed to her and scooped her into his lap, the mattress creaking under his weight. “I don’t understand,” he whispered against her hair.
“Dragons aren’t like bears, Bruiser. We females live to bear young, and then we die getting them here. Our shifting doesn’t turn off when we get pregnant. We have to force ourselves not to shift to protect our unborn babies. We grow weaker and weaker, and then we use the rest of our energy to have the baby, and then we live a day, maybe two, afterward. You didn’t agree to marry me, Bruiser. You agreed to kill me.”
“Gave her life so that you could live. You didn’t murder her. I shouldn’t have said that earlier. She chose that sacrifice for the continuation of our kind.”
“But I’m not a dragon. My animal is from my father.”
“Unlucky for her. Doesn’t matter what kind of baby we grow. The sacrifice will still be the same.”
Defeated and drained, her shoulders sagged, and she melted against the hard planes of his chest. For a long time, he rocked them, like she was a wee babe in need of comfort. She would appreciate his kindness for the rest of her life, but it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Bruiser’s life was just beginning, while hers was at the end. They didn’t match up, like two planets too far out of each other’s orbit.
“Do you feel anything now?”
She smiled as another tear trickled down her cheek. Against his chest, she nodded her head. “I’m not like my father. It just hurts too much to hope.”
Bruiser pressed his lips against her hair. “I’m not going to let you die. I promise.”