“Where is he?” Sean shifted around, searching for Liam among the members who had gathered for the pack barbecue. The event was taking place in a large clearing surrounded by giant pine trees. Perfect, as part of the field remained shaded while the rest was wide-open, which allowed for those in the mood for sun to bask in its rays. Some had laid blankets out, while other groups stood and chatted. Sean stayed on the sidelines, surveying all that took place.
Liam was, for the most part, fairly easy to spot, with his long silver-laced black hair. Cory, his twin, was the only other member of the pack who had similar hair, but his was a bit shorter. The Northwest Pack had taken in the twins and the rest of their family months prior. The ragtag group were still trying to find their place. Liam especially.
“Why are you so antsy? Jace said Liam would be here,” Merek replied.
Sean turned and met Merek’s curious gaze. As the alpha of the pack, Merek exuded a natural magnetism none of the others had. His shoulder-length black hair and icy-blue eyes were stunning. If Sean went for big and burly, he’d have probably found the man very attractive. As it was, his body didn’t rise to the occasion, but he had no such problem where Liam was concerned.
Acting on an attraction to a man had only recently become more tolerated since the alpha had found a male fated mate. Since then, Sean had been surprised by those men who’d stepped forward to reveal their sexual preferences. Surprised but proud that his pack could adapt. Although they’d had some pack members leave, most had weathered the change.
He ran a hand through the short, shaggy locks of his dark-brown hair. Feeling it and not smooth skin was strange. He’d been tired of his shaved head, and Liam had confided he liked how the strands tickled his palms.
“I haven’t seen him since I returned.” Sean had been gone over a week on pack business, ensuring the expansion of pack lands to the south. The brief period of time had felt like an eternity.
“I’m not surprised. He spent most of the time you’ve been gone with Cory and Callum, moving his stuff to an apartment in Blue Valley.”
“What?” he snapped before he could censor himself. “Why wasn’t I informed? He needs to stay
on pack lands. How can we protect him if—” He tensed when several people close by turned to cast curious glances his way.
Merek held up his hand. “He petitioned to live there, and it isn’t so far away we can’t easily get to him if necessary. It’s a ten-minute run at worst. He deserves to have his freedom if it’s what he wants. Besides, he isn’t alone. Cory moved with him.”
Sean’s jaw clenched. “I still should have been consulted,” he said tersely.
“He requested my counsel alone on this matter. More than likely he envisioned this would be your reaction.” Merek’s lips quirked.
“Oh, someone looks like their pudding’s been pissed in,” Jace, Merek’s mate, interjected when he walked up behind Merek and wrapped his arms around Merek’s waist. Jace was several inches shorter than Merek and had long silver hair secured at the base of his neck. His startling mercury eyes assessed Sean. “I’m guessing Merek told you about Liam.”
“Was I the only one who wasn’t informed?” Sean asked, exasperated.
“We didn’t take out a newsletter on the matter, so I’m not sure who all is in the know,” Jace admitted.
Sean opened his mouth, but his words froze in his throat when he caught sight of Liam’s streaked hair just breaking through the dense trees on the far side of the clearing. Unlike the other wolves, who had strong scents, Liam had none. Liam, his siblings, and their mother had been rescued from a rival pack who’d been attempting to find the root of the powers Liam’s birth pack possessed. All they’d succeeded in doing was creating hybrids, like Liam—a combination of a full-blooded Pack of Light wolf and a normal wolf breed. Due to all the experimenting, Liam had no scent and had been left blind at the age of thirteen.
When Liam approached, taking the longer path on the edge of the clearing as opposed to cutting through the crowd, Sean saw Cory directing him with a hand on his lower back. Liam pressed close, casting shy smiles in the directions of those who said hello. The nearer he came, the more Sean could focus in on Liam’s black-and-silver-faceted eyes, which, while blank, still reflected the same unique qualities of his hair.
The full curve of his lips and the high arch of his cheekbones made Liam a very striking man. Like every other time before, Sean barely restrained himself from rushing to Liam’s side to guard and guide him.
He assessed Liam’s lanky form, decked out in a simple button-down, short-sleeved shirt, faded jeans, and scuffed sneakers. Sean pressed forward until he stood directly in front of Liam and took hold of the other man’s hand. He brought it to his face and tilted his head into it.
Anytime Liam touched him, the caress traveled through his whole body until every nerve ending throbbed—some appendages more than others—and he wanted to groan. He’d often wondered how it would feel to be caressed all over by that hand. His explicit thoughts weren’t something he was proud of, because Liam’s touches were innocent, and Sean’s mind kept taking them to a dirty place.
Liam’s slender fingers traced the dips and ridges of Sean’s face, and a grin curved his lips. “A frown?” He snickered. “Someone told you I moved, huh?”
Cory chuckled next to them, and Sean glared at him. The man might look similar to Liam, but personality-wise, they couldn’t be more different. Liam had an innocent, sweet curiosity about the world around him. He loved to explore every facet; he never let his disability hold him back. There were rarely moments when Liam raised his voice, yet he managed to get his way by his quick wit. Most of all, Sean admired Liam’s quiet strength and how he pushed to be independent. Cory was more jaded and his strength a barrier against everyone around him.
Physically, well…physically Cory’s eyes matched Liam’s, but they glowed with life. Liam’s hair was longer than Cory’s, and Sean definitely did not want to run his fingers through Cory’s. Never once had he envisioned Cory as anything but another member of the pack. Liam, on the other hand… Shaking his head, Sean jerked himself back into the current conversation.
“Yes,” he concurred, distracted by Liam’s sensual lips and his handsome face that bordered on beautiful. “Alpha Merek just informed me, although I’m curious why you didn’t come to me.”
Liam’s hand trailed down Sean’s neck and chest before falling away, leaving a heated path in its wake. “You would have dismissed the idea before I got the whole sentence out. This is important to me.”
“It could still be dangerous for you to be out there,” Sean pushed. “What if the scientists find you? We only managed to take out one of the facilities. The data we collected proves there are more.”
“Cory will be with me,” Liam reassured him.
“You’ll be putting both of you in danger. Two against who knows how many.” A wave of powerlessness crashed into him. He didn’t trust anyone but himself to protect Liam.
“Don’t do that.” Jace stepped forward. “No guilt-tripping.”
Sean glanced into the distance at the men and women in groups big and small. Some held plates of food; others watched their children play. Off on the sidelines, he could see Liam’s mother and other brother, Callum. He was responsible for seeing to the protection of all these individuals, but taking care of Liam’s safety was an instinct
he couldn’t deny.
“I’m not saying anything that shouldn’t have been said at the initial consult.” He scowled upon closer inspection of Liam. His shirt hung on him in baggy folds. In contrast to his pale complexion, dark smudges were under his eyes. “You’re not ready,” he murmured, ducking his head to address Liam directly.
Liam reached out to him again but settled his hand over Sean’s heart, like a heated brand on his chest even through the fabric of his shirt. “Stop worrying. Your heart is pounding with all the stress you’re putting on it. I’ll be fine in town. I’ve even found a job.”
Liam beamed, and Sean blew out a heavy breath. How could he say no in the face of such obvious happiness? Liam thought Sean was stressed now with the thought of him living in town. Just wait until Sean set up a protective detail that would be all kinds of fun for everyone. He could already envision the enforcers’ grumblings.
“What’s the job?” he asked, fighting hard to shove away his anger and annoyance. Looking from Liam to Merek, he knew Liam’s move was a battle he had no chance of winning. He’d have to suck it up, get on board, and find a way to protect the stubborn man in his new environment.
“Working at the animal shelter—or I guess it’s technically the veterinary center, but this town is so small Doc told me it didn’t make sense to have two different locations. I’ll be there to calm the animals and do basic chores in taking care of them.”
He was proud Liam had managed to go out there and find a place in the working world, but he knew exactly where the vet center was, and he didn’t like Liam being that far away. The building resided on the edge of town in the opposite direction of pack lands.
He could still remember the day they’d rescued Liam from the labs. The man had been skin and bones, so weak he could barely walk without assistance. Of course, being as obstinate as he was, he’d balked at anyone trying to help him. He’d been more persistent than the rest. Seeing that much fear and vulnerability beneath a layer of strength brought forth a protective instinct Sean hadn’t known was in him.
He’d made it his primary goal to bring Liam out of his shell and make him smile. Granted, he had received a lot of teasing from Merek and Jace about how he acted with Liam. They saw him as Liam’s personal shield from any of the horrors of the outside world. Liam had already suffered enough pain.
“Hey,” Liam whispered, slender fingertips moving across Sean’s face to trace over his brows. “If you keep that up, you’re going to get wrinkles.”
“Then stop giving me reason to worry,” Sean countered in a tone heavy with frustration.
“You’d worry even if I lived next door to you. So stop. It’s strange enough to know I have some weird tracking device in me.”
Jace laughed. “Hey. Jacob worked hard on those.”
“Sure, then he injected the thing into my ass cheek,” Liam complained and rubbed one firm mound as if it still stung.
“You’re not the only one,” Cory cut in.
“It’s for your safety,” Sean stated.
When Jacob, Jace’s brother, had proposed tracking devices for Liam and the other rescues, Sean had jumped on board. It hadn’t taken long after rescuing Liam and his family for Sean’s pack to learn about a much bigger threat to the Pack of Light. The man who’d held Liam had been a small part in a grander plan. Liam was still in danger. Sean was lucky the alpha mate’s brother was a computer genius and designed a tracker to be implanted. At first Sean had worried what would happen if knowledge of the devices fell into the wrong hands, but Jacob had implemented a safeguard against hacking attempts, which would trigger an alarm to shut the trackers off if breached.
“Then you should be fine with us living in town,” Liam pointed out. “My ass is a beacon to my whereabouts.”
Sean growled. “You are an infuriatingly determined man.”
Liam smiled. “Not really. That’s something only you seem to bring out in me. At least the infuriating part.”
“As fun as it is to stand around and watch you two bicker, I’m going to go get myself some grub,” Cory cut in, walking away toward the grills positioned along the tree line.
“Hold up. We’ll join you.” Jace grabbed Merek’s hand and pulled him along after Cory. “Don’t let him bully you,” Jace called back to Liam.
Liam snorted. “I’ll do my best.”
“Do you want to get something to eat or drink?” Sean asked and placed his hand on Liam’s lower back, unable to stop himself from stroking along the curve of Liam’s spine. Even with all the food he had been forcing on Liam, Liam still remained slight and frail.
He shook his head. “Sorry, what?”
“I said I’d like to get something to drink.”
“All right.” He led Liam in the direction of a table that boasted large heated containers of coffee and hot water for tea. On the ground were coolers of soda, juice, and bottled water.
“Liam.” A little boy with a cap of black hair and huge chocolate-brown eyes, who only came up to Liam’s hip, ran over to them. He tugged on Liam’s shirt. “Can you help me?”
A soft smile overtook Liam’s face. “What’s wrong, Max?”
“Gordon snuck into a hole, and my arm isn’t long enough to get to him. Mommy’s afraid of spiders, and she says lizards are slimy.” Max’s lip trembled, and his eyes shimmered with tears.
“Not everyone likes lizards.” Liam reached down to take hold of Max’s tiny hand.
“What about you, Beta Sean?” Max asked, although he stared at the ground when he voiced the question, digging the toe of his shoe in the dirt.
“I don’t mind a good lizard rescue mission,” Sean replied, ruffling Max’s hair. “Come on, lead the way.”
Max walked to the tree line and in. “You’ll have to get him, Liam. He doesn’t know Beta Sean. I don’t think he’ll trust him enough to crawl on his hand.”
Sean caught sight of a towheaded little girl bent over a grouping of rocks. She glanced at Sean, Liam, and Max.
“Finally,” she said, exasperated, her large brown eyes widening when they focused on Sean. “Oh, good. You brought even more reinforcements. If there’s something else in that hole, we will definitely be needing Beta Sean.”
“Of course,” Sean concurred, taking Molly’s cue on the serious nature of the situation. It had required some time for the sweet little girl cub to become comfortable with Sean; he found his size intimidated most children. Not Max so much, as he tended to play the role of protective brother. If it hadn’t been for Liam’s presence, Sean doubted he would have gotten the opportunity to know some of the younger members of the pack. Liam proved to be a softening influence. These two cubs in particular were being raised by a single mom and had really latched on to Liam.
Sean hunched down close to the rocks, tugging on Liam’s hand. He bent closer and saw a hole, about five inches in diameter, beneath the largest boulder.
“See,” Max said. “We were playing over here with Gordon, and he crawled down there.”
“What am I dealing with here?” Liam queried, joining in on the game of rescue, being as he was expected to go into the dark abyss.
Sean didn’t like the idea one bit. “They want you to stick your hand down there and hope the lizard crawls on it.”
“Right.” Liam got on his knees, but Sean held his hand captive.
Liam frowned. “I’m going to need that.”
“Just hold on. Let me try to get a good whiff to make sure nothing else is down there,” Sean proposed, squinting into the dark cavern and seeing nothing but blackness. Squatting close, he sniffed, but beyond dirt and what he would guess were deer droppings from nearby, nothing distinctly threatening jumped out. “I don’t scent anything dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
“You’re being ridiculous.” Liam tugged his hand free and felt around, touching the entrance to the hollow before reaching in. “It’s a hole in the ground, Sean, not a portal to hell. Even if something bites me, I’ve been through worse. I’ll heal,” he said, so low Sean only caught the words because they were whispered near his ear. The farther Liam had to push his hand in, the more his face scrunched up.
Sean scowled, studying Liam’s squeamish expression for any signs of distress.
Liam flinched. “Oh shit.”
“What?” Sean clutched Liam’s waist, prepared to jerk him away from the hole. “Are you okay? Did something bite you?”
“I’m fine,” Liam muttered, sounding exasperated. “I just felt…”
“Liam said one of the bad words,” Molly chastised.
“Quarter in the jar,” Max added.
Liam pulled his hand out of the hole and in it held a small green lizard. “I think this more than makes up for my slip.”
Max and Molly grinned. “I knew you could do it,” Max exclaimed, carefully taking Gordon from Liam. “You’re so awesome.”
“You should go put Gordon back in his cage,” Liam pointed out, standing and dusting off his pants.
“Okay. Come visit soon, though. We miss you living close by,” Molly confided, jumping forward to wrap her arms around Liam’s waist, giving him a quick hug before tugging Max along to the gathering.
“Bye Liam, Beta Sean. Thank you,” Max shouted.
“Bye,” Sean replied with a chuckle before turning to confront Liam. “That was careless on your part. Would it have been so bad to wait for me to check the hole out first?”
“Yes, it would have. I wasn’t going to wait for you to name off everything that might be in the hole eating their lizard. They were already worried enough,” Liam pointed out. “Besides, I enjoy helping the kids, and with or without your assistance, I was going to get Gordon out.”
Sean’s annoyance flared, but he knew when it came to the cubs, he wouldn’t win. Liam was their mascot and hero. How could he argue against that? “All right,” he conceded, shaking his head when he noticed the smile that curved Liam’s lips. It said victory had been had, and not by Sean.
He placed his hand on Liam’s lower back again to guide him to their original destination, the drink table. “Still thirsty?”
“Yes. And thank you for sitting in on the great lizard-retrieval battle.” Liam fell into step beside him.
He couldn’t help continually glancing at Liam. The man tilted his head into the gentle wind, which blew the threads of his hair around his face. Liam always appeared to be savoring every moment. More than any of the others, Liam jumped headfirst into every new experience. Yet he still seemed more comfortable with the cubs than with the other members of the pack. His eyes might not be able to reflect any emotion, but Sean had learned to read Liam’s expressions.
Liam lurched, and Sean barely caught him. “Shit,” Liam exclaimed, pink coloring his ears and nape.
“I’m sorry.” Sean went down on one knee to examine Liam’s ankle and the stick that had tripped him. “I wasn’t paying enough attention.”
“Sean, I’m fine. A bit embarrassed, but nothing is broken,” Liam assured him before running his hand along Sean’s head. “Promise.”
If he had been a cat and not a wolf, then he would have been purring into that touch. How did Liam do this to him?
“You’re thinking too hard,” Liam prodded. “Let’s go. I want a root beer before all the cubs get to them.”
“I’m not really hungry right now. Maybe later.”
Sean rose and directed Liam to the beverage area. He snagged the last soda and guided Liam to a large tree that provided a good amount of shade. “There’s a big tree if you want to relax out of the sun for a while.”
“That’d be nice. The heat is rising out here.” Liam knelt and felt around before sitting.
Sean plopped down beside him, more than aware of the curious looks that were being directed at them. In the past he had been a more stand-on-the-sidelines and watch-from-the-shadows kind of guy.
“You don’t have to stay here with me,” Liam murmured.
Sean twisted the cap off Liam’s root beer and pressed the condensation-slick bottle to Liam’s hand until his slender fingers curled around it.
“I know,” he responded, studying a drop of moisture slipping off the bottle to make a damp trail along Liam’s hand.
“Guarding me?” After propping the bottle between his thighs, Liam licked the drop that had traveled to the pulsing blue vein of his wrist.
“I can be around you without being part of your protective detail.” Sean swallowed past his suddenly parched throat. The man had no idea how seductive his innocent movements were.
Liam reached out until his hand was on Sean’s thigh. “Just giving you a hard time.”
You have no idea.
His cock perked up and took interest in Liam’s hand being so near. If Liam had any clue how much Sean was drawn to him, the man would probably run full speed in the other direction, no matter how many twigs he tripped over. All Sean’s wolf wanted to do was rub against Liam and put as much of his scent as possible on the man. But Liam deserved to heal and find his fated mate, like Jace and Cory had. Even if Cory’s mate was being an ass.
Liam drew his hand away, and he plucked at the label on the bottle. His hair formed a curtain, keeping his face hidden.
“I can’t read your mind,” Liam muttered. “When you’re all quiet, it’s unnerving.”
“I’ve never been much of a talker. If I weren’t the pack beta, I would have one of the cabins on the far reaches of the pack lands. I’m a bit of a loner by nature,” Sean admitted. Anything to get that sad edge out of Liam’s words.
“Why be a beta, then? It’s kind of a job that requires you to be around people all the time.”
“It’s what I was raised to be. When my dad saw my size, it seemed like the next best thing to alpha. I never wanted that responsibility.”
“Careful. Callum would jump at the chance to be in your position,” Liam teased.
“On the right day, I might be willing to share.” Sean picked at a blade of grass and twisted it between his fingers. “I do like knowing I’m helping maintain order. That I have a strong purpose.”
“Yeah, must be nice.” Liam tilted his head to the side, and if Sean hadn’t known Liam was blind, he would have thought he was being stared at. “You said just your dad earlier. What did your mom think?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen my mother since I was four years old.” He frowned and studied his hands.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Sean.” Liam leaned closer. “What happened to… I mean, you don’t have to tell me.”
Sean could practically feel Liam pulling away, even though the man had not moved. “She left,” he responded before he could think too hard about revealing such deeply personal secrets from his past.
“But why?” Liam asked incredulously.
“I’m sure, at this point, the whole concept of mates has been explained to you.” Sean paused until Liam gave a small nod. “My parents were high school sweethearts, and when they’d been together for ten years, they decided to marry and have children, basically giving up on the idea of finding their fated mates because they loved each other, and it wasn’t like they were the only ones who had come to that conclusion.”
He took a deep breath as the familiar ache seeped in before the words left his mouth, but he couldn’t stop now. “When I was four, my mother went to visit relatives back east and met her fated mate. She left my father, but before you cast her in a negative role, my father pushed her to it. He said it was a gift and it should be honored, but I saw what his sacrifice did to him.”
“Is he… It’s just, I’ve never been introduced to him at any of the gatherings.”
“He died right after I became beta.” Sean’s hands curled into fists as he thought of the shell of a man his father had become. He was never cruel, just lonely and distant.
Sean shrugged and then rolled his eyes at his gesture. There were times when he forgot Liam’s blindness. “It’s like his body started to shut down. I think he gave up. His last words to me were to wait for my mate. He didn’t want me to suffer like he had.”
Liam inhaled sharply.
Sean glanced up. “A fated mating is something that should never be taken lightly. Watching what my father went through with the loss of my mother illustrated that very clearly to me. He understood how important and rare fated mates were. So for someone to deny their mate? To deny such a gift is…” He trailed off.
“But what if you think you have a good reason?” Liam asked earnestly. “Like Jacob thinks he has.”
Sean growled. The thought of Jace’s brother, Jacob, and how he’d rejected his mating to Liam’s brother Cory brought a flash of anger to the surface. Jacob claimed to be protecting his mate from the dangers of the world Jacob lived in, saving members of their birth pack, but that was no excuse.
“There is no good reason,” Sean answered with conviction. “A mating is loving someone through life and death. One mate doesn’t get to make the choice for the other.”
Liam nodded. “Right.” He appeared crestfallen.
Sean held in a sigh. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I shouldn’t have gone off on a tirade about mates. It’s a touchy subject, if you couldn’t tell.”
“I can understand that…now.”
“Okay, enough about all that. Let’s get back to you and maybe what you want to do in the pack. I think that’s what we were talking about before I went off on my journey down memory lane.”
“I definitely do not want to be beta.”
“We’ll take that off the list. Where do you see yourself in the pack?” He studied Liam as the man’s brow furrowed.
“I don’t know yet. I guess I’ll sort it out in time.” Liam nibbled on his lip and then cast him a small smile that looked more dejected than happy.
“Is that why you left? Do you not feel at home here?”
Liam shook his head. “No, that isn’t it at all. Everyone… You’ve been very welcoming.”
Sean brushed his fingertips along the dark shadows under Liam’s eyes. “Then why aren’t you sleeping?”
Liam tilted his head into the touch. “I have nightmares.”
Sean’s heart clenched. What must it be like to have his only memories of sight be the atrocities he had been exposed to? To be locked in with those visuals and have none to supersede them?
“All quiet again,” Liam murmured.
Sean dropped his hand to the ground and blew out a sigh. “I hate what you went through and that some of those men are still out there.”
“Me too, but I can’t live every day focusing on that anymore. I may be blind, but I can still experience other parts of life.”
“What’s on your list of things you want to do and experience?” Sean knew if it was within his grasp to do so, he’d help Liam tick off every item. Seeing joy on Liam’s face made any amount of effort worth his time and energy.
Liam felt around beside him and moved his drink before stretching, shuffling farther to lean against the tree. He hugged his legs to his chest and rested his head on his knees.
“I guess it’d be fun to learn how to swim.”
“Yeah? I can teach you.” He swam every morning during the spring, summer, and fall in a lake that wasn’t far from where most of the cabins were situated. It allowed him to let his wolf run free to the lake and then shift to human form to work out. The water wasn’t always the warmest, but it had never bothered him.
Liam shrugged. “You don’t have to do that. I know you’re going to be busy catching up with pack business since you’ve been gone.”
“True.” Sean stood and grabbed hold of Liam’s hand, pulling him to his feet. “So let’s get started now. No one is going to be working today.”
“We can’t leave,” Liam exclaimed.
Sean laughed. “Sure, we can. The whole pack is here. Enforcers and all. It doesn’t get safer for the rest of the pack. I don’t need to be on the job protecting them. I can focus my energy on you. Do double duty, be both your swim buddy and personal guard.”
He slowly drew Liam along after him, noticing the man didn’t fight him physically, even if he was putting up a good verbal fight. With more care than before, he made his way toward the tree line in the direction of the lake. Glancing back at the other side of the clearing, he caught sight of Callum, Cory, Alpha Merek, and Jace grouped together about a hundred yards away.
“What if they need you?” Liam urged.
“I’ll let Alpha Merek know where we’re going to be.” Two of his enforcers joined the circle of men, piquing his curiosity and not in a good way.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I’m sure you’d much rather be here at the barbecue.”
“Didn’t I just get done telling you I’m not a social person?” Sean insisted.
Draven St. James