Authors: T. S. Joyce
Bruiser’s eyes pooled with such adoration she was filled with a warm, funny feeling from her middle outward. Her limbs tingled with it.
Bruiser’s smile faded, then returned slowly. “Do you feel that?”
“What is it?” she asked on a breath.
“Our bond. Are you sure you choose me forever, Diem? After this, we’ll be bound and there is no going back. This feels…big.”
Stretching up, she kissed him softly. With a happy sigh, she relaxed under him and said, “I’m not scared. Not anymore. I choose you for always.”
He reached for the end table drawer where she’d told him she’d stashed the condoms. The rip of foil sounded loud in the quiet of the room, but seconds later, his attention was back on her. He leaned forward and drew her nipple into his mouth, sucking gently until it was drawn up tight. Her skin was sensitive there, and she arched up to encourage the affection. His hand slid under the curve of her back and held her there. And by the time he paid her other breast equal attention, she was rolling her hips against his just to feel him against her. Knees spread wide, she moaned and gripped his hair as he trailed kisses up her neck. He nibbled her earlobe and touched the slick opening of her sex with the thick head of his cock.
“Relax for me all the way so I don’t hurt you,” he whispered, and she made the conscious effort to do so.
He rubbed his fingers down the inside of her leg while propped up on a locked arm. As he pushed into her, he held her gaze. Inch by inch, his long, thick shaft filled her. The stretch burned, but she kept her face neutral and waited for the pain to subside. She’d read books on sex, and a little burning pressure was to be expected, especially since her mate was large. It wasn’t until he filled her completely and brushed her clit that it felt good. Really good. He slid out of her slowly and pushed in again. When he touched that sensitive spot again, she dug her nails into his back.
Bruiser clenched his jaw, and the muscles in his arms flexed and tightened, as if his control was slipping. Diem forced herself to relax further, and he slid in easier, faster this time. She gasped at how good it felt and held onto him tighter.
“Right there,” she panted.
“Fffuck, woman. You’re so sexy when you tell me what you like.”
She leaned upward and kissed his earlobe. Softly, she whispered, “Faster.”
Bruiser’s hips bucked against hers, and now the pleasure greatly outweighed any discomfort. She smiled and grazed her teeth against his neck. “Harder.”
He thrust into her again, this time slipping his arm under her hips and pulling her closer as he pushed into her. A quiet moan escaped her lips, and he captured the sound with his, kissing her as he filled her again. His tongue thrust against hers in rhythm to the penetration between her legs, and she was gone. Pressure building, sex tingling, rocked by utter pleasure.
His control was no more as the muscles in his stomach flexed with every powerful thrust. The growling in his throat grew louder as she bowed against him and ran her nails down his back.
He slammed into her, faster and faster until the pressure was too much. “Bruiser!” she cried out as he clamped his teeth against her shoulder and slammed into her hard enough to move her backward on the bed. She detonated around him, crying out as the pleasure became blinding. She closed her eyes to the world as her mate froze inside of her, swelling as he growled out her name. Throbbing pulses ripped through her, but she was helpless to decipher between her orgasm and Bruiser’s. He bucked into her sporadically as he swelled again, warming her from the inside out.
“Shit,” he muttered, eyes intent on her shoulder. “You’re bleeding.”
Warmth trickled into the hollow at the base of her throat, and she turned her head and stared at the stinging bite mark he’d made.
“Will it scar?” One could hope.
“How fast do you heal?”
“Not as fast as you would.”
“Then yeah, it’ll scar. Fuck, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I did that.” Bruiser backed off her and pulled out, then ran his hands through his hair like he was pissed off at himself. “I hurt you.”
Frowning, Diem said, “I’m not complaining. This is a claiming mark, right? The other women here have them.”
“Did you want one? I should’ve asked you first.”
Diem sighed in relief and pulled him onto the bed. Rolling him over, she straddled his hips and tucked her arms under her breasts, then lay against his chest. “I secretly wanted one, but I didn’t know how to ask. I know it’s different if it’s not a bear-bear pairing.”
“You aren’t mad? You aren’t hurt?”
“No, and not really. It just stings a little, but now I’ll bear your mark for always. You claimed me.”
Bruiser huffed a little relieved laugh and wrapped his arms around her back. For a long time, she stayed like that, safe and warm in her mate’s arms. And he was her mate now, in all the ways he could be. They had a paper that bound them by human laws, and their animals had accepted each other. Now, she had Bruiser’s mark on her shoulder that said he chose her back.
Nothing in the world could touch this feeling of elation.
“Tell me about the picture.” She was drowsy but wasn’t ready for sleep yet. Not when she wanted to enjoy every moment here tonight with the man she was falling in love with.
Bruiser inhaled deeply and rubbed her back in a distracted sort of way—little circles here and there with his fingertips. “The Ashe Crew is the family I created for myself, but that picture is a photograph of my blood family.” He made a ticking sound behind his teeth. “Kind of.”
“I didn’t meet them until I was ten. That photograph was taken a few months after Ma Keller found out about me.”
Diem frowned at the wall as she snuggled her cheek against his chest. “Explain.”
“Diem, this isn’t something I enjoy talking about.”
“Tell me once and be done with it. And then you can ask me anything, too.”
“Shit,” he said on a breath. The massage circles stopped, and he hugged her real close. His hands shook against her back. “My dad stepped out on Ma Keller, who was his wife. They had four boys together, Gage, Cody, Boone, and Dade. My dad fucked up. Cheated. Nah, it was more than that. He had an affair. Ma Keller had no idea. Dad was a firefighter and worked odd hours, and she didn’t even suspect he was shacking up with my mom whenever he got the urge.”
Bruiser got quiet and puffed air from his cheeks before he continued.
“When I was born...well…you know how it works with dragon females better than I do. My mom didn’t make it, and my dad had a newborn bastard kid he didn’t know what to do with. So he hid me away. Hired a full time nanny to live out in the boonies with me. She raised me, and I thought she was my mom for a long time. No one ever told me otherwise, and I had no idea about the scandal that surrounded my birth. Dad was always weird around me. Distant. He said I looked just like my mother, and I think that hurt him. I don’t know. I wanted to go to parades in town with him. Wanted him to take me to movies and let me go to public school, but he said I couldn’t because I was special. I wasn’t fuckin’ special, though. I was a blight on his name. His darkest secret. He died in a fire when I was ten. Or at least I thought it was a fire that took him. There was some confusion around his death. Chemical burns to his neck, which didn’t make sense at the time because he was still wearing his fire suit when his crew pulled him from the wreckage of this old blazing building. It had to be IESA. They detonated these trackers filled with acid in my brother Dade’s neck when I went to help them last week. Same type of chemical burns. Anyway, my nanny had instructions on what to do if anything ever happened to my dad, so she dropped me off at the Keller’s house with a single suitcase and an envelope that had Ma Keller’s name on it in dad’s handwriting. That’s when I found out I was the half-dragon bastard secret of the great and honorable Titus Keller. Or so his letter to Ma Keller said. Dad was a bit of a legend in Breckenridge, so when word got out around town, Ma Keller was shamed just as much as I was. She took me in, but she couldn’t seem to get over my parentage. She kept me separate from her boys for a while. They all looked just like her, and I was living proof that her husband had led a secret life for a decade that didn’t include her. I can’t blame her, really. I understand why she never bonded with me, but it was an uncomfortable home situation for the eight years I lived with the Kellers. I grew up never fitting anywhere, watching this amazing, happy family going about their lives from the outside. I grew resentful. Packed my bags the day I turned eighteen and never looked back. Not until last week when my older brother Cody called me, telling me the family was being pressed on by this asshole IESA agent named Krueger. I knew the man because he’d been after me for a while, too, but I think your dad had been keeping him at bay. I knew if Cody was desperate enough to call me, they were in trouble. Like end-of-their-entire-crew trouble, and they had three cubs to protect.”
“You have nieces and nephews?” she asked.
“Two nephews and a niece, all towheaded Keller stock through and through. Cute as shit, and I couldn’t stop playing with them when I was there, but I sure was in a rush to get back here where I belonged. Being back in that town where everyone knew about where I’d come from just felt like it was going to suffocate me.”
“How did your brothers treat you when you were growing up with them?”
“Half-brothers. And they were upset at first. It’s a lot for a kid to accept they have this brother they’ve never heard of, and that he’s there because their father was a rat bastard of a man and not the hero they’d always thought he was.”
“Do you ever talk to them on the phone or write letters?”
“They call from time to time. I think they want a relationship, but I’m not ready. Not after everything, and not after finding such easy relationships here.”
“But they’re blood, Bruiser. Having a relationship with your half-brothers doesn’t have anything to do with how much you love being a part of the Ashe Crew. If they are reaching out to you, you owe it to yourself to respond. You were put into that family for a reason.”
“Yeah, and what about you?” he asked, his voice defensive. “You think it’s fair you were given to your dad? You can’t choose family, Diem. Not blood family.”
“Are they murderers? Are they terrible people?”
A snarl of frustration rattled against her cheek. “No. They do what they have to do to protect their crew, same as we do, but no, they aren’t murderers. The Kellers are good to the bone. I just didn’t fit in with them.”
“But you’re the one still hurting after all this time. You keep that picture of them in your bedroom because you feel some connection with them, but you keep them at an arm’s length. You don’t have to, Bruiser. You can’t ever heal from what was done unless you accept who you are. And like it or not, dark-headed or not, same mother or not, you’re a Keller same as them. Now I’ve said my piece, but know this. If my father or half-brothers ever tried for a relationship with me the way your half-brothers have tried, I’d be happy just to have them care.”
Bruiser rolled her over and made her into a little spoon against his chest. “You had to come in here and be all logical and make me feel like a complete douche wagon, didn’t you?”
“You are definitely not a douche wagon, lover. Just hurt and stubborn about bundling that pain and keeping it inside of you when you don’t have to.”
“Okay,” he conceded, kissing the back of her hair. “I hear you.”
She smiled at their shadows against the wall. Limbs all tangled up until they were one big indiscernible lump.
“Now, your turn. What do you want to ask me?”
“That’s easy. When are you going to let me see your dragon?”
She chuckled and snuggled her back even closer to him. With a happy sigh, she said, “Whenever you want. If you’ve seen my father’s dragon, though, I can assure you, you’ll be utterly disappointed with mine.”
Bruiser couldn’t sleep. Not after the conversation with Diem about his family. She saw things differently, and for as bad as he’d thought he had it growing up, Ma Keller had taken him in when she didn’t have to. It must’ve been hard on her to feed the boy that meant her mate hadn’t loved her like she thought. To tuck him in, read him stories, and raise him alongside the sons she’d had with the man she was mourning the death of.
And connecting with Gage, Cody, Boone, and Dade had been difficult, but hell, they’d never sold him off in an arranged marriage knowing he would die having a baby. Diem’s family was four shades of fucked up, and if she thought he should think twice about throwing away a relationship with the Kellers, well, maybe she was right.
As carefully as he could, he lifted her head off his arm and slipped out of bed. Barefoot and dressed in his swim trunks, he checked that he had enough battery life on his cell phone and let himself out the front door as quietly as he could manage. Which was actually ridiculously noisy, because he was a damned house-sized grizzly who wasn’t known for his light-footedness. Plus, he lived in a thirty-five year old singlewide with creaks under every floorboard. He waited outside for a few minutes to see if Diem stirred, but the house remained quiet.
Everyone had gone to bed, and even the outside light strands had been turned off. It had to be three in the morning, and hell, he knew he would pay for this in the morning, but he couldn’t sleep until he called Cody.
Cody was the leader of the Breck Crew. He and Dade had tried the hardest to include him when he’d lived with them. It had been Cody who had asked him to come back and visit soon when he’d left Colorado a few days ago. He’d told him okay, but they could both hear the lie in his voice.
Bruiser climbed up the trail toward the clearing on the mountain with the best view and the best cell phone reception. It was windy tonight and smelled like rain. The clouds covered most of the stars, but he still loved the landscape out here. Dark blue, churning sky, casting blue light across the mountains of evergreen forest.
With a steadying breath, he hit the speed dial for his oldest half-brother and waited through two rings. Cody picked up on the third.
“Bruiser, are you all right? What’s happened?”
“Nothing. Nothing, man, I just—”
“Who is it,” Cody’s mate, Rory, asked in a sleepy voice.
“It’s Bruiser, baby. Go back to sleep. I’m going to take this outside.”
“I’m sorry, man. I shouldn’t have called so late.”
“Hang on,” his half-brother whispered.
The click of a door sounded, and Bruiser imagined Cody standing on the front porch, looking at a mountain scape much like this one, just a couple states away.
“No, stop apologizing. I’m glad you called. I’ve been wondering what happened with you and Damon Daye’s daughter.”
Bruiser smiled and leaned up against a giant pine tree. “I’m a married man now. I claimed her tonight.”
“You marked her and everything?” Cody asked, voice low and serious.
“Yeah, she ended up being amazing. I lucked out. I think I… Well…”
“Oh, damn.” Cody gave off a knowing chuckle. “You love her, don’t you?”
“Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. I know it doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop my feelings. God, I sound like such a dipshit saying that out loud.”
“Nah. Maybe to Dade and Boone, but I’m newly mated too, remember?”
“Yeah, how are Rory and Aaron?” Aaron was Cody’s son he only recently found out he had.
“They’re amazing.” Cody’s voice was filled with a smile. “Aaron is all signed up to do this shifter pre-school in the fall with Gage’s kids. He keeps asking me every five minutes when school is gonna start. He’s already driving Rory up the wall talking about bear school.”
Bruiser huffed a laugh imagining it. Silence filled the line, and it was now or never. “Cody, the reason I called is that I wanted to say sorry about not talking to you more since I left. You and Dade and Ma and everyone. I know I just dropped off the face of the planet, and now I think maybe that wasn’t fair of me.”
“Stop,” Cody drawled. “That isn’t your fault. I know it was hard for you to be raised with us, and getting out of Breckenridge must have been a great relief. We miss you is all. And we regret things hadn’t been different.”
“I just…” Bruiser blinked rapidly, because he obviously had some sort of pollen in both eyes. “I just didn’t know how to be a part of your family.”
“Which was dad’s fault.”
“Yeah, for having me behind your ma’s back.”
“No, that’s bullshit. He messed up worse than that. He hid you from your family for a decade, then left it up to all of us to try and piece together this family he’d blasted apart. The man I remember was a good man, a good father, but he was also a stick of dynamite with the shit he pulled. His death lit a long fuse, but none of that was on you. If anything, it was more on us for floundering with your existence for too long. It was like we just couldn’t accept that he’d do something like that, but you were there, proof he’d hurt Ma. I can’t take back the way things were. I wish I could because it’s something I deeply regret. You should’ve felt a part of us. Hell, you should be part of the Breck Crew right now. We should’ve tried harder to help you fit in with us.”
“Now you stop. You were kids, and Ma had just lost her husband and found out he cheated on her in the same week. It is what it is. I just wanted to say sorry for my part.”
“Ma has a photo album of you,” Cody blurted out. “I saw it the other day. She has one for each of us, and I caught her crying over yours when you left Colorado. I know it probably doesn’t seem like Ma bonded to you when you lived with us, but she did. She just didn’t know how to show it to you.”
Bruiser wiped his blurry eyes with the back of his hand before the damned tears could escape. Fuck. He had to wait a minute before he could speak again so his voice wouldn’t crack with emotion. “I used to wish she was my ma. I know I’m not blood related to her, but I saw how she was with you boys, and I wanted that so bad, too.”
“I’m sorry.” Cody sounded as choked up as he did. “I can’t begin to explain why she treated you different. I think you should call her sometime, though, because I know her regret with you runs bone deep. She can’t say your name without tearing up. Bruiser, I’m gonna beg you again. Please come back and visit more. I know I already asked, but in case you don’t pick up my calls again. I’m not asking you to leave the Ashe Crew and join ours. I just want a chance to get to know you again. You saved our family, man. I mean, you didn’t have a stake in our battle with IESA, and you dropped everything and made a deal with Damon Daye that could’ve ruined your life, and you did it to save us. You think you’re different, but the way I see it, you’re the best one of us.”
Bruiser scrubbed his hand over his face and leaned his head back against the rough bark of the tree behind him. “Okay, man. I will.” And this time, his words rang with honesty because he knew he would go see his family again and try to repair the deep cracks in their foundation. “You mind if I bring my mate when I do? I want you all to meet her.”
Cody huffed a laugh. “Yeah, brother. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get to meet the woman who tamed you.”
Bruiser sat there for a long time after he and Cody had hung up. Already, the ball of pain he kept well-fed inside of him had become lighter and smaller. He smiled and shook his head as he stared at the dark screen of his phone.
Diem had come in here and shaken everything up.
She’d pushed him to man up in ways he’d been lacking, and that’s how he knew she was a keeper.
She made him want to be a better man—the type of man a woman like her deserved.