Authors: Moxie North
This declaration was met with an agreeing rumble from the bear in her lap.
“I’m assuming you, like the rest of us, have never thought of fighting your other half. They are too much a part of us. Conner has been fighting his true self his whole life from the sounds of it. Now it’s time to pay the piper,” Cage explained.
Mackenzie was more than a little confused by all of this. How did one not get along with the other half of their soul?
“How about I take Mackenzie back down the mountain, make sure she’s safe and warm at the cabin. You and Conner come down when you’ve worked things out huh,” Cage asked the animal.
Bear sat up on his haunches and assessed him. Coming to some kind of decision, he leaned his head into Kenzi’s and gave her a push.
“I guess that means it’s my time to go,” she said laughing. She was more than a little concerned that Conner wasn’t in control enough to shift into his human skin. But then she’d never heard of someone’s animal having to stage a coup either.
“I’ll head out and shift. I’ll be just into the wood line so you can shift in private. We’ll head down together,” Cage offered graciously.
Mackenzie nodded, thankful to not strut around naked as a jaybird in front of her mate’s brother. Nudity was a reality, but one still needed a little courtesy in these situations.
Cage stopped and looked at the big bear again. “Conner, I know you can hear me in there. Figure your shit out, that’s an order,” he finished with a growl.
Turning he walked out of the cave leaving Mackenzie with Conner.
“I really hope this helps. I’ve been waiting thirty-eight years to find my mate. I’m tired of waiting. I want to start my life, my family, and I want to do that with you,” she said sadly. She gave bear another head butt as she stood, then left the cave to follow Cage home.
Darkness fell and Conner’s bear was not budging. He’d tried to shift back too many times to count. Although he considered the possibility that if he shifted to human, his bear wouldn’t shift back to run them down the mountain. But that was a risk he was willing to take.
Instead, they sat in the cold cave. Not that they were cold, the bear was enjoying the cool night air, the smell of the forest, he was in his element. Conner knew that his animal needed this, could feel the peace radiating from him being out in the open.
He’d denied him that. He knew it was shitty. It’s not like his animal knew he was picking a dud at the time.
Conner thought back to all the times his bear had just wanted to run. Feel the wind on his face, splash in the stream, or sharpen his claws on a tree. Out of spite, Conner would go days or weeks before shifting. His animal would start out complaining, then would get quieter as the days went by.
Fuck, he was an asshole, he thought.
But it was his life, he tried to argue. It should be his choice, when and where and with whom. What did his bear know about women? What did his bear know about cougars?
Bear took the opportunity to show him some of the things he saw. In his mind flashed the picture of golden curls whenever Kenzi tilted her head. The warm scent of sunshine when she walked past them. Her laugh when Sophie or Jinger said something funny. The looks she’d throw their way, when Conner was trying to ignore her. His animal saw it all, took all of it in. He saw her, when Conner didn’t.
His bear’s sense of conviction about her being the bee’s knees, was so crystal clear, Conner envied him.
Even he could see that accepting what his bear wanted, and if he was being honest, what he wanted, was the simplest course of action. Just mate with Kenzi, seal their bond, make cubs and live happily ever after.
But what if they didn’t? What if his inability to find peace with his bear affected their life together? What if he had cubs that struggled like he did? There were no wise words of advice that he could offer up to make their lives better. His shit was so screwed up, he was no one’s role model.
Maybe he was thinking too far into the future. What if he just agreed to, what date? Did shifters do that? It could be a compromise to give him more time, a chance to figure things out. Conner knew deep down it wasn’t the decision his bear was looking for. But at least it was a start.
Although he could feel his bear’s acceptance of their tenuous truce, he still didn’t let Conner shift until morning.
* * * * *
Mackenzie was sitting at the counter, letting Connie dish her up some eggs and bacon, when she heard the front door open. Before she turned, she knew it was him.
“Conner, my baby,” his mother rushed over to him. “Are you okay? Are you still hurt?” She checked him over head to toe.
“Mom, I’m good. All healed up, just took a little time. Was easier to stay shifted and spend the night in the woods,” he explained. Although his eyes couldn’t help but dart to Kenzi to see if his mother knew the truth. Kenzi shook her head, letting him know his secret was safe.
“Mom, do you think I could talk to Kenzi alone,” he asked.
“Of course, dear. I’ll just head over to the base camp and deal with some wedding nonsense with Sophie. There is more food on the stove. I’m sooo glad you are all right,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
Connie waved to Mackenzie before heading out the door.
Conner stood looking at his mate. She stared back. Neither spoke.
Giving in first, Conner offered, “Hey.”
“Hey back,” she said.
Rubbing his hand around the back of his neck, he looked down to the floor. He was not good at this stuff. Deciding to ease into it, he walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He topped off Mackenzie’s, then served himself eggs and bacon from the stove.
Sitting down at the counter next to Kenzi, he started eating.
Kenzi stared at him for a few moments, then turned to her own breakfast. They ate in silence.
Finishing up her meal, she broke the quiet. “I see you were able to shift.”
Conner snorted, “Not until this morning. Spent the whole night in that cave.”
“I bet your bear liked it though,” she said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, he did,” he admitted.
“Thanks for staying with me when I was hurt,” he offered quietly.
“You’re welcome,” she whispered back. “I’ll always be there for you Conner, if you let me.”
She meant that, deep down, soul deep. Her desire to be with him was all her and her cat could think about. She tried to not dwell on the bad talk show-esque feel of ‘I love a man who treats me like crap’. It was there in the background though. That niggling voice of ‘
You deserve better. You deserve to be cherished as any mate expects to be’.
But that voice she pushed back, when she remembered she’d told Conner she would be the strong one if he couldn’t. She meant that and she never went back on her word. At least she never had before.
“I think I know that, I want to believe it. But…I’ve never…trusted my instincts. Does that make sense,” he asked quietly.
She could see how hard it was for him to admit that. “I can’t say that I understand Conner, but I’m willing to listen.”
Conner looked into her eyes; he saw she wasn’t looking at him like he was less of a man. She was looking at him with an empathy he really needed right then.
“I can’t make you any promises, Kenzi. I don’t feel like I can give you what you need, what you deserve. But if you feel anything like I do, it hurts too much to be apart. I want you to have everything. I want you to be happy. I hope you can believe me when I say that.”
“How about we make a deal, a compromise. You stop avoiding me, and I’ll lay off the bonding thing for now. Let’s pretend we are just a human couple that met at a bar. We’ll date, watch movies together. But I’ll be honest Conner, I don’t know if I can have sex with you again without biting. I’ve lucked out both times that I couldn’t reach you when I wanted to. I guess you probably on some level made sure of that. But denying my cat hurts me. It’s cruel. So let’s just get to know each other. And see what happens,” she asked hopefully.
Resisting the call of his mate’s delectable body was not something he was looking forward to. But he owed it to her and his bear to try.
“Okay, let’s date like celibate humans,” he said sarcastically.
Raising her coffee cup, she offered a toast, “Here’s to doing it the human way.”
Conner reluctantly clinked his mug to hers. He was so screwed.
The next few days seemed to go smoothly, if not forced. Kenzi spent some time with each family member getting to know them better.
Connie and Edward were easy to spend time with. It helped that she’d moved back into their house. That motel was not the quietest or safest place for a weary traveler to rest their head.
Although the wedding plans were in full swing and Kenzi helped out where she could, it was harder than she’d thought. Seeing someone so blissfully mated and planning a big celebration to proclaim that bond to their family and friends was hard on her.
Conner talked to her, they usually had breakfast and dinner together. Always at his parents’. It was like he was making sure they had chaperones. His parents would excuse themselves after dinner and they would sit and talk for a while. But each night that talk grew shorter. The sexual tension between them was palpable. The minute Conner walked through the door, Kenzi got wet just seeing his muscled body under his fitted clothes.
More embarrassingly, when Conner knew her state, that meant his parents did too. They were cool about it, again it was a fact of shifter life. Honestly, it seemed to make his mom happy. Like she was thinking everything with them was as it should be. They decided to not let the family in on their little agreement.
They knew they hadn’t bonded, but didn’t ask about it. But the curiosity was there.
During the daytime hours, Kenzi managed to spend a few days in the office with Cage. She learned how the boys’ uncles ran their lumber mill, while they did the timber. It truly was a family affair with the Rochons. It was fascinating to her how much went into the legality of cutting timber.
Permits, approvals, reviews, and inspections. She’d never given much thought to a resource she used every day. She was even able to go out with Wyatt to see how they actually cut the trees. They had a machine that would drive up to the tree, grab it, saw it, and keep it upright. Then it would lay the tree down where it wanted it. Crazy!
What she really enjoyed seeing was the steep cutting. Granted it was more dangerous, but to see men with giant chainsaws felling timber, watching it crash down a mountain side was exhilarating.
Conner hadn’t offered to take her out to see his work. She knew he’d been working with the local officials on the burned area that Tony had started. The entire site was burned down to charcoal. Luckily, the fire break and the fact that they had a water truck on site and crew to keep the flames back, kept it from spreading. A wildfire, when they hadn’t had their normal amount of rain, could have been catastrophic.
After a week of stilted conversations and unfulfilled sexual needs, Kenzi was at her wit’s end.
Her cat was unhappy, Conner seemed unhappy and the family was quietly watching it all. After a few days, Dax decided that he should head back to California to check in on business. Mackenzie had assured him that things were going well with Conner and it would be fine for him to go.
Now she wished he’d have stayed. She needed her brother, her family around her. Conner’s family tried so hard to make her feel welcome and included that it was suffocating. They meant well, she knew that. But it shown a spotlight on what was wrong with her pseudo-relationship with Conner.
As dusk fell a week after their breakfast agreement, Mackenzie knew she couldn’t keep doing this. After dinner, she asked Conner out to the front porch. Normally they sat on the couch inside, again so his parents were just down the hall, hearing every word.
It was warm out, and Mackenzie pulled in a deep breath. Gathering her courage, she sat on the top step of the porch and waited for him to join her.
“Do you care about me at all,” she whispered, looking straight ahead. She was no sissy, but if she took one look at him, her big girly side would let loose an avalanche of tears and probably snot all over him. She was an ugly crier, always had been.
“Kenzi…” he said in an anguished moan.
“Answer me, honestly.”
“Of course I care about you. I want you safe, I want you happy,” he admitted. He knew that much. It was the things he and his bear could agree on.
“And if I told you I wasn’t happy, then what,” she kept on.
“Why aren’t you happy? Has someone been mean to you? Made you feel not welcome,” he asked. He’d kick whoever’s butt needed kicking if they were being mean to her.
Kenzi started laughing. She dropped her head into her hands as she rubbed her face moaning.
“You going to kick your own ass,” she asked him.
“Me? I’ve been mean to you? When,” he asked annoyed.
“Conner, you clearly can’t do this. Or you can, but won’t. What are we doing here? We aren’t dating, you won’t be alone with me. In fact, this is the closest we’ve come to being alone all week! I need you. I need to touch you. I’m so horny I spend half my time taking showers and making good use of the detachable shower nozzle,” she hissed.
“I’ve spent more time this week with your brothers then you. I like them, they’re sweet and funny and their mates are some seriously lucky women. I need that too, Conner. No, I deserve that. And if you don’t think I deserve that, then you really don’t care about me at all. I need more than a mate that just wants me to be safe. I need a mate who worships and adores me. Thinks I hung the moon and stars. Who can’t keep his hands off of me. One who really wants me,” she finished on a whisper.
Conner had been silent. Her words stabbing at him, but he knew he deserved it. He’d been avoiding her. Being around her, her scent, her beauty was too much of a temptation. There was no way he wouldn’t bite her if they had sex again. And for some reason he thought if they just avoided the bonding, then they still had choices.
He could hear his bear laughing at him in his head, or the equivalent of a laugh. They were mates, the bonding was just the final step in the process. They really didn’t have any choices. The perfect person, the perfect wife, lover, and partner was sitting next to him on the porch telling him that he was the one being mean to her. He was the one hurting her.
“What do you want from me, Kenzi,” he asked his voice harsh. “I told you, I couldn’t give you what you wanted. I wasn’t good enough for you. I still believe that.”
“So you aren’t going to give us a chance? You’ll deny your bear and yourself the chance to be happy? I can make you happy, Conner, you just have to let your stubborn guard down long enough to let me in.”
“I’m trying to protect you from me,” he shouted.
“I don’t need protecting from you, I need…” she trailed off. She could feel the hitch in her throat. Her eyes were starting to burn, the tears and pain she’d been holding onto for days was bubbling to a boil.
“What!? What do you need, what do you want me to do,” he asked, standing to face her.
Drawing in a ragged breath, Mackenzie looked up at her tall, handsome mate and swallowed her pride.
“I want you to love me,” she whispered, as a tear slid down her cheek.
Conner saw that tear, glinting in the moonlight. It was like a kick to the gut. He’d caused that. He was an asshole and deserved to suffer an eternity for hurting her. His bear was telling him to go to her. Comfort her, kiss away those tears. Shaking his head to himself and his animal, he looked back at Kenzi. “I wish I could,” he whispered to her.
The tears tracked down Mackenzie’s cheeks as she slowly got up and walked back into the house. She softly let the door click closed, then the lights went out inside.
That was it. That was all she was going to give him. She should have clawed his eyes out, it was what he would have expected. Instead, his brave, strong mate took her pain and left.
Conner stood in front of the house for a while. Staring at that closed front door, he really wasn’t thinking of anything, just letting the self-loathing wash over him.
A crack sounded behind him and he turned to see Cage and Wyatt standing in the dark.
“We should kick your ass,” Wyatt growled.
“Probably,” Conner answered.
“Do you have any idea how much shit we are going to get from our mates over this,” Cage asked calmly.
“It is what it is,” Conner shot back.
“Oh, wise words, dickhead,” Wyatt returned.
“Look, I don’t need it from you two tonight. I’ve got enough problems.” Conner turned to leave.
“Fine, but we didn’t come to beat you up. Although if you’d like to go a few rounds in the dirt, I’d be happy to give you a black eye for being a class-A jerk,” Cage said.
“Then why are you here? Just wanted to watch the show,” Conner snarled.
“We heard someone outside and came to make sure it wasn’t Tony, runt,” Wyatt said.
“So, what are your wise words? What insight can you give me that will make all of this better,” Conner said angrily, gesturing towards the dark house.
Wyatt and Cage looked at each other for a moment, coming to some kind of silent agreement.
Cage stepped closer to Conner and put a hand on his shoulder. He leaned over so they were eye to eye. “You will never, ever find anyone for you more perfect than her. And I know you think you are punishing yourself for whatever shortcomings you think you have. But for every time you deny your animal. You are denying Mackenzie too,” he said, quietly to his brother. He didn’t use his Alpha voice; this needed to come from one brother to another.
Stepping up behind Cage, Wyatt offered, “You’d do anything to keep her safe. Make sure she was happy and healthy. If you send her away she will never be any of those things again. She will be miserable. You won’t be there to protect her. She’ll never find another to love.”
“Punish yourself however you want. But don’t punish her,” Cage offered.
“It’s cruel,” Wyatt added.
Both brothers looked at Conner, then turned to walk back to their own homes.
Conner was trying to not let their words sink in. Wyatt’s parting shot in particular. ‘
’ He’d always thought of himself as a surly kind of guy. But never cruel, not intentionally. But the truth of it was there, hanging in the air.
Any pain Mackenzie was feeling was directly related to him. He’d hurt his own mate. He knew he didn’t deserve her.
Resolved to ask Mackenzie to continue their previous agreement to date, Conner headed to his mom’s for breakfast the next morning to catch Kenzi. He was going to offer to take her up to a replanting, to try and make amends for his behavior the previous night. He still didn’t think he could bond with her, but maybe he could make her happy in other ways. It wasn’t a stellar plan, and he hadn’t worked out any details, but Conner was at least going to try. His bear was more than happy that they were going to see her again. He’d voiced his displeasure with the porch conversation loudly most of the night.
Walking through his parents’ door, he saw his mom standing sentry at the stove. Conner took a sniff to see what was cooking and noticed something missing. He sniffed again, searching.
“She’s not here,” his mom said to the pan, not looking at him.
“Where did she go? Base camp,” Conner asked, coming closer to the bar.
“No. Your father drove her to the airport this morning for an early flight out,” his mother said, pushing the eggs she was scrambling around in the pan.
Conner felt the world shift under his feet. “She’s gone? She left,” he choked out. His heart felt like a lead weight. She wasn’t there, she’d left him.
“She said she couldn’t stay. That she had to go. Knocked on our door in the middle of the night, sobbing,” his mother added angrily.
Conner sat down on a stool and ran his hands over his head. Did he go after her? If he did, what would he say? Would she come back with him?
“Don’t.” He heard his mother say.
“Don’t what,” he responded.
“Leave her alone. You don’t want her. You’re just tormenting her. She’s a sweet girl and doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. I tried to imagine how I would feel if your father ever rejected me. If he fought every instinct he had to avoid being with me. What would that make me feel like,” she said finally, turning towards her son.
Conner saw tears in his mother’s eyes.
“It would make me feel like shit, Conner Rochon. It would make me feel like my life wasn’t worth living if the one man the fates had destined to be mine rejected me. I’d want to die,” his mother whispered to him.
“I raised you better, Conner. I really thought I did,” his mother said, her voice catching in her throat. She turned off the stove and walked down the hallway. He heard her bedroom door slam shut.