Authors: Moxie North
The pews were decorated with evergreen trimmings and burlap ribbons. Very rustic and very Rochon family. Conner and Wyatt started adjusting each other’s bow ties in some attempt to look serious when an SUV pulled up. Out spilled Connie and Edward, followed by Mackenzie and Jinger.
Sophie was following in a town car with her parents. They had been totally aghast at the idea of just showing up for the wedding with everyone else. They insisted the bride needed to make an entrance.
The boys’ parents came through the doors first. Connie kissing both her boys and telling them how handsome they were. Conner’s dad looked just as uncomfortable in his tux as the boys did. Mackenzie followed behind him and gave Wyatt a big hug, asking him how he’d been. Conner took in the midnight blue halter dress she was wearing. It was gorgeous on her. She’d done her hair in victory rolls on the front and curled the rest to fall down her back.
He broke his perusal as she turned to him and offered her hand. He took it out of reflex and sucked in his breath as the tingle of awareness washed over him. Breathing her in, he managed a quiet, “Kenzi.”
“Conner, how are you,” she asked politely, pulling her hand from his grasp.
Clearing his throat he said, “I’m good, you?”
“Fine, thank you,”
“Listen, Kenzi, after the wedding can we talk,” he asked slightly pleading. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but he knew he needed to say something.
“Conner, I….” She was cut short as Jinger stepped through the doorway.
Conner turned and took in his brother’s mate. She was wearing a sweet pink dress and she smelled different, not like she did last night. Something had changed. Looking to Wyatt who was grinning like an idiot, the bulb finally flashed.
“You’re having a baby?” Conner whispered to his brother.
“We’re having a baby,” he said laughing.
Conner grabbed his brother and gave him a huge hug. He knew how much Wyatt wanted to start a family and now he was going to be a dad.
“I’m gonna be an uncle, twice!” Conner yelled. He saw his parents turning from the pastor to laugh at him.
“Yes dear, we’re all very excited,” his mother chided.
Conner turned and swept Jinger up in a hug, swinging her around.
“Hey be careful with that!” Wyatt called out.
Conner set a laughing Jinger down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Congratulations,” he said to her quietly.
“Thank you,” she said blushing. “Please don’t tell anyone else. This is Sophie’s day and I don’t want any attention taken from that.”
Jinger, always the sweet one. “You bet, but later we are celebrating my little soon-to-be niece or nephew properly,” Conner said.
“Sounds like a plan,” Wyatt said, slapping his brother on his back.
Mackenzie had moved off towards his parents and he didn’t have a chance to talk to her until after the ceremony.
The ceremony went off without a hitch. The little chapel was packed to the brim with bears and a few humans thrown in. They had closed the doors as the town car pulled up. Both Conner and Wyatt were standing as best men, while Jinger and Mackenzie were Sophie’s bridesmaids.
Cage, Conner noticed, had started to sweat. Conner thought this was strange as they were already mated and bonded. This was just a human ceremony. One that could actually be broken legally if both parties changed their minds. Unlike mating which there was no turning back from.
As the doors at the end of the aisle swung open. Conner started to figure it out. Floating down the aisle, on the arm of her father, was a vision. Sophie had chosen an ivory colored off the shoulder lace gown that fit over her curves and showed off the little bump of her belly. Which her parents just assumed was weight gain. Sophie was going to let them think that for a while longer.
She’d chosen a sheer veil edged in lace and covered her down to her waist. She’d left her chocolate brown hair down in curling waves around her shoulders. But what made her truly beautiful was the look in her eyes as she looked at Cage.
The pure love, absolute devotion, and an uncompromising promise were all shining out from her. And Conner understood when he heard his brother’s breath hitch more than once. He glanced way from the bride to see his brother grinning bigger than he’d ever seen. He also couldn’t ever remember his brother having tears in his eyes.
The big Kodiak Alpha was laid low by his bride.
After the final I do’s they all gathered for pictures outside the church as the rest of the guests mingled with cocktails. There was a large white tent set up in a grassy area where most of the guests had migrated to.
Once the pictures were finished the party really started. A band was set up at one end of the tent and after everyone had stuffed themselves on Sophie and Cage’s eclectic menu, the dancing began.
Conner kept his eye on Mackenzie as the night progressed. She mingled through the crowd, talking to most of the clan. Some of them she’d met years ago. When finally a slow song came up, Conner took a chance.
Walking up behind her, she turned sensing him as he approached. He held out his hand to her and she hesitated before she took it.
Conner walked her out to the dance floor and wrapped her in his arms.
Mackenzie really, really wanted to resist, but he smelled so good and felt even better. She sank into his embrace, hoping she wouldn’t regret it later when she had to work him out of her system again.
Breathing in her scent, he let his cheek rest against her hair tucking her into his chest. Speaking quietly to her he said, “I’ve missed you.”
She didn’t say it back, but her grip on him tightened.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you. I wish I could take it all back. I think about what my life, or your life, would be like right now if you hadn’t come up with your brother. I know that sounds bad, but at least I know you’d be happy still. Wondering who your mate might be. Planning for your future. Instead, you got me,” he said.
“I was planning for my future, Conner. I was dreaming of what could be. The problem is you think I’ve stopped. You think I’ve given up on you. I haven’t. I’m willing to give you my future. But you have to want it. You have to fight for it. I can be strong, but only for me. I realize now, I can’t be strong for you. This will never work unless I have a mate that I can count on to be there for me. You can’t do that right now, I understand. But don’t think for a minute that I’ve given up,” she said, looking up at him so he could see how much she meant her words.
Every time she was near him, she prayed he’d just accept the fates. Be happy, be with her.
Conner cupped her face in his hands. Goddamn, she was beautiful, he thought.
Slowly he leaned down, giving her every opportunity to deny him what he was seeking, he placed his lips on hers. Kenzi sucked in her breath, opening her mouth, giving Conner the chance to sweep his tongue over her lips. Kenzi let him in, tasting him back, her tongue battling his. Their dancing was non-existent now as they were standing on the dance floor just seeking each other out.
Mackenzie let herself slip into it, maybe this was it, maybe he could try this. Cage had told her he was spending more time shifted. Maybe his bear had convinced him that they were meant to be.
Breaking off the kiss, Conner used his thumb to rub over Kenzi’s swollen bottom lip. He looked so conflicted. Kenzi couldn’t help herself when she blurted out, “I love you, Conner.”
She watched as what she said registered on his face. His hands still cupping her jaw tightened for a second. Then he dropped his head to hers, his eyes closed, and said, “I can’t.”
Mackenzie stood frozen and he turned away from her and walked off the floor and into the woods.
She left that night for California.
“I don’t want to hear anything from you! In fact, it would be best if I don’t even see your fucking face!”
This was the roar coming from Dax when Conner walked into the office two weeks after the wedding. Mackenzie had left and Conner hadn’t heard anything from her. His family hadn’t given him any updates either.
When he’d walked off that dance floor, he briefly stopped by Cage’s truck and stripped out of his tux, leaving it inside for Wyatt to take care of.
Then he spent the next three days in the woods. His bear and he were feeling more in sync. By in sync, meaning they were both miserable. Conner felt like he was finally figuring out that being a shifter was an advantage. Not the burden he’d always thought it was. His bear was showing him that their connection was soul deep. Conner had spent days with his consciousness in the forefront, but still shifted as his bear. Then there were times that he’d fall back and, well, let bear be bear. It was good. It was finally feeling right.
During these revelations, Conner gave himself a chance to think of the, what if. What if he’d said ‘I love you’ back to Mackenzie? How would his night have ended? How would his life have started?
Instead, he was standing in the camp office with a seething Dax in front of him. Conner took in the elongated teeth, glowing eyes, and couldn’t miss the razor sharp claws that Dax was sporting.
“Look, I understand,” Conner started.
“No! You have no idea! I don’t know what the fuck went down at the wedding. She won’t tell me anything. I just know that my sister is suffering and it’s your fault,” Dax yelled.
Conner put his hands up in a placating gesture when Dax had started in, but dropped them when those words slashed through him.
Leaning back against the wall across from Dax, Conner slid to the floor until he was sitting on his ass. He ran his hand through his hair and said, “You’re right.”
Dax looked at him to see if he was going to pull some bullshit about how tough life was. But was surprised when Conner admitted, “It’s all me. I broke her heart. I hurt her and I’m still hurting her.”
Letting his claws retract, he put his hands on his hips and looked over to Cage who’d been quietly sitting through the exchange. He didn’t plan on interfering; his little brother needed his ass kicked. Dax needed to do the kicking since it was his sister in question.
Cage gave Dax a shrug. They’d already come to an understanding where Conner was concerned. This was a Hayes family fight and Conner had to take whatever Dax wanted to dish out.
Sighing, Dax took a seat in front of the desk. Crossing his arms over his chest he asked, “Are you going to do anything about it? End her suffering?”
Rubbing his hands over his face, Conner thought about just going to her. Telling her he loved her. Because he did. From the very depths of his soul he couldn’t deny any longer she was
. And no matter if he deserved her or not, or if she could do better than him, there must be a reason the fates matched them together. Maybe it was because he was a complete fuck-up and she was willing to love him in spite of that? Whatever it was, he wanted her pain to stop.
“Do you think she’ll talk to me,” he asked Dax quietly.
“I don’t know. How many chances has she given you?”
Snorting, Conner admitted, “Too many.”
“Well, I’m guessing there needs to be some serious groveling. A bunch of begging and a grand gesture probably wouldn’t be asking too much,” Dax suggested.
“Grand gesture? What the hell does that mean?” Conner looked between the two Alphas.
“That’s for you to figure out, dipshit,” his brother advised.
Okay, grand gesture, Dax had no idea what that meant. He’d have to Google it.
“I will give you some advice,” Dax started. “I would make sure that you are the one doing the chasing. Show her what lengths you’ll go to for her. I think at this point she’s willing to be miserable and alone rather than give you another chance.”
“Fair enough,” Conner said. He could do this, he could get his mate and make her happy. There was no longer any other choice for him. It was love or nothing.
* * * * *
The three brothers and Dax all went up to their latest cut as there had been some suspicious activity. No damaged equipment, but odd items left out by the site. An empty wine bottle, a guide to hunting big game, not totally strange items in and of themselves. But for an area that never even saw even a backpacker, it meant that someone had been there. The Rochon crew would never leave trash lying around. These items were a little too specific for Cage’s taste. That’s why he called Dax back up, thinking Tony was still in the area.
The four men walked along the perimeter. The crew was working close to the road so they pushed further into the woods.
Dax held up a hand and gestured to the other three to sniff the air. He was there or had recently been there. Nothing compared to that oily smell. They’d decided that Tony had given up bathing a long time ago.
Following the scent, they spread out to cover more ground, Dax and Conner taking the right and Wyatt and Cage taking the left flank.
Conner could pick up other smells now, gasoline, what smelled like gin, and more unwashed body smell. He gave Dax a look that got him a nod in return. They must be close to where he was camped out.
Crouching down, Conner moved forward until he could see a tent in the distance. There was a motorbike parked next to it, but no sign of Tony.
Sure his brothers had already figured out that they were honing in on the elusive Tony, he opted to move closer. As he was almost on the camp he heard a twig snap and his head shot to Dax. Not more than ten feet behind him stood Tony. The man was haggard, unshaven, with month’s worth of beard growth. His clothes were filthy, and Conner could see he was completely unhinged.
“Down on your knees, freak!” Tony shouted, spitting as he spoke.
Conner watched as Dax held his hands up and slowly got to his knees. Conner was trying to calculate how fast he could get to Tony. But the simple fact was, no matter how fast a shifter was, a bullet was faster.
“You’re Tony? Right,” Conner asked, putting his hands up to show him he was unarmed.
“Figured that out did ya?” Tony sneered, keeping his eyes on Dax.
Conner wasn’t sure what the best approach was for negotiating with a deranged individual so he decided to just keep him talking. Maybe his brothers could get the jump on him.
“Dax told us about you, what happened to your brother. That was a tragic accident,” Conner started.
Tony had started moving around to the front of Dax, keeping his gun trained on his head. He kept moving backwards until he was next to his tent and motorbike. Switching his gun into one hand, Tony pulled in the clutch on his motorbike and kick started it. Letting out the clutch he left it idling. Smart move on his part, Conner thought.
“We’re sorry about your brother,” Dax offered. “You know how much we liked him.”
“You killed him!” Tony screeched out, “You sickos killed him!”
“Tony, I don’t know why your brother got into that grape press. He knew better, he knew how dangerous it was,” Dax explained calmly.
“He told me! He found me and told me what you are. He wanted me to run with him, to get away from that hell hole and I didn’t believe him! I let him go off on his own. Then he died. I saw what you were after that. He was right, you’re monsters!”
Conner noticed that Tony’s hand was growing increasingly shakier. They needed to get the jump on this guy and fast. Cage and Wyatt must have come around to get behind Tony before he moved. They would be circling back again to stay behind him.
“Tony, we understand how much you must be hurting. But you’ve hurt us too, you almost killed two of our family members. Your actions hurt two people and you have to pay for those crimes. You come with us quietly and we will try to get you the help you need. Explain to the police what you’ve gone through, yeah?” Conner was trying to be tactful enough to get him to put the gun down. “Why don’t you set your gun down and we can talk about this.”
“Talk about what? That you’re a bunch of fucking animals! That you ain’t natural! You all deserve to die, people need to know what you are,” Tony yelled.
“We’re just like you, Tony. Just a little different. I’m sorry your brother didn’t give us a chance to explain. We’d never hurt anyone, we just want to live in peace,” Dax said quietly. Still kneeling he was at a serious disadvantage from this angle to even shift and get the jump on the loony tunes in front of him.
“No, no, I’m not going to jail. I’ll tell everyone what you are! They’ll hunt you down, and I’ll help,” Tony screeched at Dax.
Tony heard something and whipped his head around to see Cage’s bear at the edge of the camp. Without looking back, Tony fired the gun and let it drop to the ground as he jumped on his bike and sped off.
Conner took a second to see Dax slump to the ground, but his instincts were to take off after Tony. Shifting in a painful shower of sparks, his body ripping through his clothes, his bear was off running in the blink of an eye. Tony’s bike slowed as he had to maneuver around some logs and Conner was able to latch onto his leg. His bear’s long canine teeth digging through the calf muscle. The taste of blood had Conner’s bear roaring. This was the man that had almost killed his brothers’ mates. He wanted to expose who they were. He’d shot Cage and now Dax, he was too dangerous.
Conner lost his hold as Tony gunned the engine and swerved. He shot through the forest and Conner gave chase. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Wyatt running along the side trying to anticipate Tony’s direction.
Tony did a sharp turn away from Wyatt and made the mistake of heading back in the direction of his camp.
Wyatt could smell the blood and knew Conner had at least wounded him. They chased him back to the camp and as Tony turned at the tent he came up against an eight foot tall Kodiak bear standing up in front of him. Tony swerved, laying his bike into the dirt. Cage grabbed the front wheel of the bike in his massive jaws and flicked it behind him with just a swing of his head. Tony rolled to his back scrambling in the dirt.
Wyatt and Conner caught up to the scene and Wyatt grabbed an ankle sinking his teeth in to keep Tony from crawling away. Tony flailed on the ground and reached for a knife that was strapped to his leg. Conner got there first, clamping down on his wrist. The bears pinned him to the ground as Cage’s bear approached.
Wyatt let out a long growl, his vote on the subject was clear. His mate was still suffering from what Tony had done to her. As Alpha, this was Cage’s call.
He approached slowly, growling towards the man cowering on the ground. He was whimpering, but still managing to call them every name in the book.
Cage made his decision, he rumbled low to his brothers and then wrapped his massive jaws around the cowering man’s neck. In an instant, it was over, each brother extracting their pound of flesh.
Conner dropped the hand that was in his mouth and went over to check on Dax. His cougar was lying in the dirt, blood smearing his side.
Cage walked up behind him having shifted back to human. “He managed to shift before shock set in. It was a through and through, should heal quickly.”
The cougar had witnessed the death of Tony and was quietly assessing the group. The big cat huffed, acknowledging what the brothers had done not only for their own family, but for his. Taking a life was never an easy thing, even if it was justified.
The brothers had to wait until Dax was able to get up and make his way down the mountain. They had all shredded their clothes so it was fur only to get back home.
Conner bought plane tickets for Dax and himself the minute he got home.