Authors: Susan Laine
That was what his dad always said when he was serious about a vow to his sons, Kris knew, and he smiled contentedly. Knowing he’d have his father’s backing if he decided to meet with Rafe was the kind of assurance he needed right now, feeling depressed and worried and aggravated all at the same time, emotions mixing in uncomfortable combinations.
It had been two weeks since the phone call.
Kris was less than a week away from graduation, and his nerve endings were frayed with the constant pressures and tensions of ending college. He’d scored a perfect 4.0, and with his extracurricular activities and hobbies, he was sure to get a scholarship to a university of his choice. In college, he’d gotten into football, and his attention had been split between his scholarly pursuit and his newfound interest in sports. By the end of the week, he’d know what kinds of scholarships he was going to have, and then he’d have to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Rafe’s existence complicated matters.
One of the reasons for this conflict was the fact that despite not knowing if Kris would ultimately agree to meet with him or not, Rafe had sent over some of his blood via special courier to heal Kris’s mom’s leg. It was true that Rafe’s ulterior motives weren’t entirely 100 percent altruistic, but Rafe could not have been certain by any means that the outcome would work in his favor. And still he had done it.
That more selfless than selfish and kind act that could’ve led to potential exposure—along with his dad’s backing of whatever decision Kris would make—had sealed the deal for Kris.
Yeah, Kris was going to meet Rafe.
He didn’t have a clue as to how exactly to do that without compromising his own self in the process, but he was determined to try. If not for the sake of Rafe, who’d been waiting for Kris for two centuries, then for himself, because despite his reluctance to submit to this prospect of mating with a virtual stranger, Kris wanted to find someone to love who’d love him back.
Kris just had his doubts about whether this stranger—mate or no—could deliver. Or if Kris himself could deliver. His future had been such a clear path in front of him before all this, and now he worried if his frustration over his fate would just escalate things and make them worse.
Praying, Kris hoped that the next week would go well.
had been the agreement negotiated in good faith between his own family and his mate’s family—with the NFL serving as an intermediary. One week. That was how long Kris and his family would spend at Rafe’s family’s ranch in Wyoming. A ranch… in Wyoming… for breeding horses and raising cattle. Kris had been flabbergasted upon hearing a bit more of the specifics. It had turned out that Rafe’s family—the Kings—were very successful and wealthy, and the Howling Creek Ranch was renowned in certain parts of Wyoming. Kris had thought about all that, in dizzy confusion, for about a minute—and then he’d ran out of the conference room of the NFL branch office straight to the bathroom and thrown up his breakfast.
Sitting in the luxurious white leather seat of the private jet Rafe’s family had sent to pick them up after he’d signed the nondisclosure agreement, Kris fidgeted in his seat, nervous to the point of screaming. They were about to land on a private airstrip, and Kris’s possible new life expanded before him like an inflated balloon—until it was in imminent danger of bursting with too much air. Did things like this really have a way of blowing up in your face, Kris pondered, or was that kind of thinking way too negative?
God, I can’t breathe
“Calm down, son,” Dad said at his side, squeezing his shoulder in a comforting grip.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kris huffed, nodding frantically. “I’m perfectly cool. Can’t you see?”
His dad chuckled and joked, “Yes, of course you are. If you were any more relaxed, I’d fear for the coherence of your DNA. Now, son, come on. Deep breaths.”
Leave it to his dad to always put things into perspective. Kris blew out his breath—his cheeks puffed out—and closed his eyes to ease his concerns behind the black veil of darkness.
“Now listen here, Burton,” Mom said from across the table in the opposite seat. “Kris can handle this because he knows exactly who he is, and no amount of werewolves or whatnots are going to change that fact.” Giving Kris her most endearing—and professional nurse/caretaker—smile, Claire Ellis continued gently. “You have absolutely nothing to worry about, sweetheart. We’re here for you and with you every step of the way.”
Having his parents nearby to give him a feeling of security, as well as a nudge in the right direction, gave Kris the strength he needed to stand firmly on his own two feet. The panic attack was waning, and his breathing evened out from quick, shallow breaths to longer, calmer ones.
“Thanks, guys.” He exhaled after a while, smiling. Yeah, this would all work out fine, he said to himself, amid his newfound reserve of abundant self-confidence.
huge black SUV with tinted windows fit all of his family and their luggage with ease, and in Kris’s opinion might’ve accommodated a few more relatives, their baggage, and maybe a pet or two thrown in there somewhere as well. Their driver—a huge man with an unusually pale complexion—was on the NFL payroll, and his welcome consisted of tossing the luggage in the trunk and opening the car doors for them to enter without so much as a word, let alone a smile.
Focusing on his breathing, Kris stared out the window at the wilderness scenery. Tall, moss-covered conifers spread out from the rocky sand toward a clear blue summer sky, and a cool dusty breeze with hints of tree resin hit the flushed skin of his face as he pushed the button to roll down the window.
“Man, these people must be rolling in dough,” Kris’s older brother, Isaiah, thundered next to him, bouncing on the leather seat and smoothing it with his huge hands.
“Shut up, Iz,” Kris growled with low fury, not wanting to deal with his ambitious older brother’s taunts right now.
Isaiah nudged his side with his elbow. “Come on, baby bro. This is a sweet ride. Even you’ve got to admit that.”
Kris sighed, the nervousness creeping back in huge increments.
“Leave it alone, Iz,” Dad said from the seat on the other side, his tone fatherly in its conviction—and even more so in its silent warning.
“Yeah, Dad,” Isaiah murmured apologetically, leaning back in his seat. “Sorry.”
Grateful to his dad for intervening, Kris adjusted himself on the seat, searching for a bit of coziness before he was thrown to the wolves, as it were. The trouble was he had no clear idea of what to expect. Yes, he’d spoken to Rafe (once), and he’d spoken with the NFL rep (too many times, that was for damn sure), but Kris still felt lost and alone, even with his family at his side. It wasn’t like he was stepping into the lion’s den, but all things considered, he wasn’t far off the mark, he thought gloomily, and fell into a silent depression.
Curses, shouldn’t he feel excited and happy to meet his soul mate? Kris just didn’t.
main house of the King family was bigger than any place Kris had ever seen in real life. The house, surrounded by pine groves, stood high on top of a rocky hill with its three floors, huge floor-to-ceiling windows, modern amenities, and almost a designer look with its natural white color and sharp angles and shapes. Clearly this was the work of a modern architect, or had at least been designed by someone with minimalist artistic vision. The building didn’t blend into the natural background at all, its aesthetics being far more artificial than naturally synergetic.
As Kris stepped out of the car, his stomach filled with butterflies—and they all had razor-sharp wings. His hands were shaking when he tossed the strap of his backpack over his shoulder.
The huge white front door with rectangular windows opened, and out stepped the man Kris wanted to see the very least. Mr. Basil Denham smoothed his bald head, as though he imagined it with hair, and walked over to them with his hand extended for greetings.
“Welcome, welcome,” he proclaimed in a celebratory manner, ushering Kris toward the door, all the time holding his hand in a viselike grip as if Kris were a deer caught in headlights and might spring free and escape into the woods at any moment. Smothering a sigh, Kris let himself be led to the door because he had chosen to do this, and it was too late to back out now. “We are all so pleased you could take the time out of your busy schedules and make this little get-together of ours.”
Isaiah brushed in between Kris and Denham, practically knocking the man over with his rehearsed haste and cutting loose the man’s grip on Kris’s arm. “Yeah, well. We’ll see.” His courteous smile could not have been more false, but all Kris felt was brotherly affection that Isaiah had come to his rescue from this odious man before them.
“Thanks, Iz,” he muttered under his breath, feeling the nervousness subsiding as his well-built jock of a brother took his place next to him, looking like it would take a forklift to budge him. Kris had never realized just how strong his brother’s protective streak was—until now.
Inside the house, it was cool and shady despite the large windows, as the trees outside extended natural cover over the building. It was very modern, with clear polished stone and marble surfaces, no wood in sight. Massive black leather couches surrounded a glass coffee table in the living room, with white stone pillars on the right and a wall with a white stone fireplace separating the room from the dining room at the back where Kris could make out the edge of a huge table. There were no hunting trophies on the walls, only modern paintings, and sculptures on pedestals. In Kris’s opinion the house could’ve just come from
or some other rich designer home magazine. Even the scent of the house betrayed no one living there, and there were no smells of food, drink, perfume, cologne, clothes, or even the earth. It was pristine and unblemished—almost unlived in from where Kris was standing, in the foyer with his mouth hanging open slightly.
Yet the house was not unlived in, because a group of people who’d been sitting on the couches got up and headed toward them. From Kris’s perspective, they all seemed huge, all of them tall and muscular, making Kris shrink a little.
That was when he smelled it.
Oh, the sweetest, most alluring, most delicious scent his nostrils had ever had the pleasure of encountering. Musky to the point of pungent, and so very masculine. Kris’s knees buckled, and he had to stand up straight to lock his knees in place in order to avoid keeling over. His heart was beating so hard and fast he could barely make out one of the men speaking to him while shaking his hand.
“Welcome, Kris,” the older man said in a pleasant low, soothing voice, and for a moment Kris couldn’t shake the image that he was being calmed, like a frightened horse. “I am Daniel King, and these are my sons, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, and Rafael.”
Kris had no chance to take a good look at the brothers when all he heard was the echo of his mate’s name hammering in his ears.
Coming forward from behind his elder brothers, Rafe stopped just shy of touching distance from Kris, who stood there in place, watching, unable to look away—and knowing at once it was him.
Rafe was all the things he had said: six four, two fifteen, with auburn hair, hazel eyes, and rough sun-kissed skin. Only, Rafe was more than the mere sum of his parts. Massive in size, his broad shoulders and wide chest were bigger than a barrel, and the ripped, muscular body was barely hidden underneath a dark-green sweater, blue faded jeans, and brown cowboy boots, bulging here and there mouthwateringly. Tapering down to a trim waist and narrow hips, Rafe’s figure shaped lower into long legs, oozing thick, stout strength, as if he could hold the whole world on his shoulders, and his feet could form the foundation of any number of worlds. Hard jawline with hint of cinnamon-colored stubble, angular features as though he’d been chiseled out of stone, and big hazel eyes, lit from within with a fire Kris couldn’t even begin to comprehend—all these things made Kris shiver in anticipation.
Next to this god of a man, Kris felt scrawny and thinner than a rope. Sure, he’d bulked up a bit since joining his college football team, but not to this extent, being more lithe and sinewy. Kris had a terrifying feeling that even without his supernatural werewolf powers, Rafe could squash him like a bug despite Kris’s athletic background, because he was known for his impressive speed on the ball field, not his strength.
Kris noted through the humming in his head how people around him introduced themselves with simple
nice to meet you
s, quick nods, and hearty handshakes. Then there was a silence, and everyone was staring at Kris and Rafe—neither of them having taken their eyes off each other for a second. Feeling their darting gazes on him, Kris swallowed hard but couldn’t concentrate on anything else but his mate standing so close to him.
In the end, it took his dad’s stern grip on his shoulder to snap him out of his aroused trance, and he blinked several times, looking down at his feet, as though the secret of life lingered there.
“I’m happy to finally meet you, honey—uh, Kris.” Kris knew the man was blushing at his unintentional endearment, and from his side, he could hear Isaiah snort lightly.
Now Kris knew where the wonderful, exciting scent—of fresh sweat, horses, leather, and earth—came from. He knew because the bearer of the scent was also the one who spoke to him with the familiar boyish drawl he’d heard before on the phone. The sensory overload took him by surprise, even though he’d been told and warned to expect it. His throat was drier than the desert, and he couldn’t find his voice.
What the hell? I’m stronger than this. I have a fierce sense of self, and I know who I am. I have my courage of conviction, and one man alone will not shake my foundations
“Y-you too,” he mumbled, trying to find coherence and force in his voice but failing. The only reason his voice didn’t trail off completely was that he was looking at his feet still.