Hawke changed between one heartbeat and the next, his eyes staring Riaz down. Except Riaz was in no mood for a dominance display. Snarling, he launched his body toward Hawke’s, claws out.
They met in a clash of fur and blood and fury.
TEN MINUTES LATER, he threw water on his face again, winced. The cut over his eye had bled plenty, and his cheekbone felt as if it was crushed, though it was probably just a heavy bruise. The only consolation was that Hawke hadn’t come out of it unscathed—though he had managed to slam Riaz to the ground at the end, sink his teeth into the scruff of Riaz’s neck.
“You were fighting angry,” the alpha now said. “Made you sloppy.”
Blowing out a breath, Riaz flexed his hand. “Nell was wrong by the way. Nothing broken.” Though his hand was red and raw, his knuckles scraped.
“You ready to talk now?”
“You usually beat your lieutenants to get them to talk?”
Hawke’s bark of laughter was genuine. “Ask Riley sometime.” Running his hand over the fur of one of the wild wolves who had come to stand guard while they fought, the alpha met Riaz’s gaze. “Adria?”
Riaz wasn’t a lone wolf just because he liked solitude. He didn’t trust many people with his innermost thoughts, was happier keeping his silence. Except this time, he knew he needed his alpha’s help. Taking a quiet breath, he began to speak.
“Shit, Riaz,” Hawke said when he finished. “Hell of a mess.”
“Tell me you have the answer.” Hawke was the sole person in the den who might. “You’re the only wolf I know who found his mate twice.”
Riaz sucked in a breath, the pain in his chest stabbing deeper. “Adria is mine.” He would not budge on that, not now, not ever. She’d just have to get used to that fact. “But the mating tug, it’s towards Lisette.” Though it was no longer a feral, possessive rush, but a gentle knowing at the back of his mind, in itself a strange thing, given that he was a predatory changeling male—then again, nothing about this situation was “normal” in any way.
Hawke’s hair caught the light as the other man shook his head. “If I told you I had the answer, I’d be a liar.”
“Yeah.” There was a single critical difference between his situation and Hawke’s—the child Hawke believed would have been his mate, had died when Hawke had been a boy. “If Rissa had lived…”
“I wouldn’t have been the same man,” Hawke said simply. “I’d have been mated for years before I ever met Sienna, and that life would’ve shaped me in a wholly different way.” A wry smile. “Who knows, I might even have been a nice guy.”
Unexpected amusement threaded through the tangled knot of Riaz’s emotions. “I can just see you baking cupcakes.”
For some reason, that made Hawke howl with laughter before his alpha shifted and padded into the stream, the wild wolves following in his steps. Riaz’s own wolf stretched inside him, wanting out. He surrendered to the need, following Hawke across the stream and even higher up into the mountains. Their small pack loped at an easy pace, the wind rippling through their fur, the scents in the air sharp and brittle with cold.
The beauty of the Sierra Nevada hit his heart anew and he wondered how he could’ve ever left this place of mountain and forest, lakes and rivers. It hurt his heart, the love he felt for this land. Scrambling up onto a small hillock formed by fallen rocks, he lifted his head and sang of his joy at being home … and of finding the one who was meant to be his. His pack joined in his song, and it was good.
Padding back down, he ran again.
When the pack halted, it was beside a mirror-perfect lake. Riaz assuaged his thirst before shifting, his mind if not calm, then at least a fraction less disordered. Sparks of color beside him denoted Hawke’s own shift. Neither of them spoke for long, quiet moments as the early evening wind rustled through the trees, the fiery sky above curling with an edge of indigo blue.
“Are you in the mating dance with Lisette?” Hawke asked at last, scratching the head of the wild wolf that had curled up beside him. “Because if you are, your wolf’s made the decision for you and trying to fight it will destroy you.”
“No.” Neither man nor wolf wanted to be in the dance with Lisette—the idea of it felt wrong on every level, a betrayal so vast, it made his wolf snarl in defiance. “All Lisette and I ever had between us was a possibility.” And he knew in his gut that the time for that possibility to come to fruition had passed, regardless of any accepted rule. “Have you ever known a wolf in a relationship to find his mate?”
Hawke took time to reply. “I’ve known couples who’ve been together for years to suddenly develop a mating bond. I’ve always thought that perhaps the human’s choice influences the wolf’s, or maybe two people come into perfect sync after that time together—kind of like Indigo and Drew knowing each other for so long before they mated.”
Riaz understood what his alpha was saying, had seen the same thing himself, but—
“That’s not the question I asked.”
Husky-pale eyes locked with Riaz’s. “The answer is no. Love without the bond, where the wolf accepts the lover, rather than being neutral about it, seems to stop the mating bond coming into play with anyone else.” Pausing, he added, “Simplest explanation is that the commitment takes the place of the mating bond.”
“So if I’d met Adria first”—fallen so f**king hard for her first—“I wouldn’t have to deal with this.” A situation where the woman he adored thought he was meant for another.