Lucas offered him no help, but smiled politely and ordered a bottle of Chilean Pinot Noir to go with our cold twenty-two-ounce porterhouses.
Once the waiter was gone, we stared at each other awkwardly across the huge butcher-block table. This restaurant wasn’t the most romantic atmosphere for a date, but it was dark and it was quiet without being silent, so I couldn’t complain too much.
While the restaurant might not have been silent, the space between Lucas and I filled with anxiousness and avoidance. After the silence moved from comfortable to smothering, I felt the need to break it before it broke us.
“Did you ever stop to think maybe I was planning to come back on my own?” I hadn’t meant for the first thing out of my mouth to sound so accusatory, but when it came to good date conversation, I was out of practice.
Lucas wove his fingers together and pressed both palms flat on the table. He breathed deeply through his nose, like an athlete preparing to execute a difficult maneuver.
“I thought about it, yes,” he began, his focus fixed on his thumbnails, where they dragged across the rough wood of the table. “I thought about it for one month. And then another.” The lines his nails drew out got longer and longer, the two hands now separated from each other by a wide berth. Subtle. “Then, after the third month, I started to see things a little differently.”
The waiter returned, keeping him from saying more and giving me time to feel ashamed of myself. Our wine was presented, and Lucas did the big show of smelling and sampling it, then giving our waiter approval to serve it.
The wine smelled heavenly—rich and dark, with the hidden promise of blackberry tartness. I took a small sip, but not much more. I wanted to have a level head for this conversation, and I was one heck of a cheap drunk.
Lucas continued as if we’d never been interrupted.
“By the time your vampire came to see me, I was certain you had no intention of coming home without some…convincing.”
What had felt like a knot of shame in my gut unraveled. I had thought Lucas and I could talk this out without any of the anger I’d experienced before, but I was sorely mistaken. It roared to life, carried by the instincts of my inner wolf, who was not really the forgive-and-forget type.
“So, you thought having two strangers kidnap me and stick me in a car trunk would be the best way to convince me?” My voice rose above the sounds of the ambient jazz quartet hidden in one corner. Lucas looked me in the eyes, and there was a quiet warning in his expression.
I placed my fisted hands in my lap and refused to avert my eyes. I wouldn’t be cowed by a withering stare. I wasn’t his wolf. But I didn’t speak again.
“You need to know what you left behind.”
I think of anything he could have said, this frightened me the most. After hearing Dominick’s assessment of the damage I’d done, I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear it directly from the wolf’s mouth. It would be difficult to be high and mighty if Lucas did something stupid, like confess how much my leaving had hurt him. I turned away.
“Okay,” I acquiesced.
“Secret, look at me.” His tone was gentle rather than demanding.
I raised my gaze slowly, afraid he might have become a Gorgon and I would be turned to stone by looking at him. I feared his pain much more than his indignation. Of course, when I faced him, all that greeted me were his pale, glimmering blue eyes. His former annoyance had faded, and he was once again my Lucas.
He reached his hands out to me, and I placed my own in them. His palms were so much larger than mine he could have enclosed my whole hand in his. His skin was rougher than I remembered, and I wondered if that was new or if I’d forgotten little pieces of him over the spring.
“Even though you killed Marcus,” he said, “there was still a level of uncertainty in the pack because of what he had done by bringing that many rogues out and by finding a Southern pack princess to be his mate.” By this he meant my mother. “And by almost killing my mate…”
I almost protested. Lucas may have announced his intentions to court me, but I had not been formally acknowledged as his mate. Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m going to be mated to a billionaire, I sort of want a ring.
Or at least to be asked.
He carried on without seeming to notice his faux pas. He had also avoided mentioning Marcus’s partnership with a certain nasty Cajun vampire. I wondered if he hoped we could avoid discussing vampires altogether.
“The entire foundation of my leadership came into question. Others in the pack, especially the older families in the small towns, started to ask themselves if I was fit to rule. Or if I was too young to be king.” He squeezed my hands a little too hard.
I’d never asked Lucas about his father’s death. Everyone, at least everyone in public, knew about his sudden and tragic death at the age of fifty-eight from an undiagnosed pancreatic tumor. Since my romance with Lucas had been quick, dramatic and lacking in time for most of the small details of our pasts, I had not had the chance to ask if that was a cover story.
It seemed far more likely Jeremiah Rain had died defending his pack from an enemy, either one from outside or within. But now wasn’t the time to ask. Another question for another day. I knew Lucas resented the doubt his age cast over his ability to lead his people. I wasn’t part of his pack, but nothing would ever make me doubt his loyalty to his wolves. I marveled at how anyone who knew him could hesitate to trust his leadership.
“I didn’t help things, did I?” I asked.
He smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “Dominick told you about the special designation for those who save the king by killing a usurper, right?”
For the first time that evening I realized I hadn’t seen the blond bodyguard once. Either I was being trusted again, or he was hiding somewhere and I hadn’t thought to look.
“He was less than clear about what the implications of being a pack protector were, though,” I admitted as I looked around the room, seeing no sign of him.
Lucas’s thumb rubbed small, soothing circles onto my palm, and some of my anxiety melted away. I stopped looking for Dominick.
“Pack protector is a title for anyone who puts their own life at risk to protect the king or the sanctity of the pack. Basically, anyone who places the pack above themselves. It is a sacred position, and one of great respect. To be the king’s mate and pack protector proves your loyalty to the pack beyond reproach.”
“Oh.” My palm went cold in his hand.
“To be the pack protector and then vanish when the pack is at its weakest shows you had no respect for the position. It’s considered an unforgivable insult.”
“Oh,” I said again. A lump was growing in my gut, and while it was not as familiar as it should have been, I knew what it was. Guilt.
“By leaving, you did more than hurt me personally. You helped add doubt to the already restless minds of those who were the least certain of me.” Though his tone was matter-of-fact, I heard the sharpened edge to his words.
I had suspected he might have issues to deal with after I left, and I’d had three months to battle the guilt of what my absence might have meant to him. But having him lay it all out on the table did something I couldn’t have expected. It sort of pissed me off. Sure, I’d made things harder for him, I wasn’t denying that, but if he was the king, wasn’t it sort of his job to deal with difficult situations?
“Lucas…” I took a breath to calm myself, resisting the urge to say something I couldn’t take back. I had to remember that I’d never really been a part of anything bigger than myself. Before becoming a warden, I hadn’t been a member of the vampire council, but rather was their pawn. I hadn’t considered myself to be a part of Lucas’s pack, so of course I wouldn’t have considered how my individual actions could have impacted the group. Maybe it was foolish of me, but if you’ve never been responsible for anyone but yourself, a lone wolf, it’s hard to wrap your head around a pack mentality.
“I know you had your reasons. I know you were freaked out by what happened in that basement…”
That was the understatement of the decade. I’d forced my new boyfriend to accept I was part vampire so I could feed off him in order to not die. Afterwards, I hadn’t been sure if I’d ever see him or Desmond again.
“I ran.” I pulled my hands away from him. “I didn’t know how to face you. I didn’t know if you’d want to see me after what happened. So I ran.”
“Shouldn’t that have been for me to decide?”
“Shouldn’t coming home have been for me to decide?” I retorted. Even though I wasn’t really angry, I found it frustrating he couldn’t see outside the box.
He huffed. “The vampire would have brought you back anyway. At least with Jackson there, I knew you’d be safe.”
I flashed to my graceless, bloody exit from the car trunk. “I guess we were both wrong,” I said.
Our steaks came then, and we watched each other in chilly silence. Neither of us moved to eat once the waiter left. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Instead I sipped my wine with less reserve than before.
“I meant what I said yesterday,” he offered. I don’t know if he was trying to make peace between us or to change the subject, but I found myself more annoyed than flattered that he would bring it up right then.
I swished the wine around in my glass and watched the translucent fingers of it claw down the inside walls of the bowl.
“Secret.” He was trying to keep the anger out of his voice, but minute traces of it clung regardless.
I could only imagine how frustrating it must be for Lucas to be soul-bonded to such a single-minded and stubborn woman as myself. I was willing to bet he asked himself often if it was worth the effort to be with me to please the Fates. I bet he wondered if I was a test. I couldn’t blame him. But all the same, he wasn’t exactly the prize he seemed to be.
Who knew even supernaturally selected relationships would be so complicated?