“Hey.” A broad-shouldered man with dark hair and tanned skin pulled up a stool across from her, his smile wide, the dimple in his left cheek giving him a roguish air. “I’ve been sent to join the foot soldiers.” He held up a peeler. “Name’s Sam. You’re Adria, right?”
It was impossible not to smile back. “Yes.”
“I didn’t know Indigo had another sister.”
The mistake was an easy one to make if you didn’t know the family well. “Tarah’s my sister,” she said. “So I’m technically Indigo’s aunt.”
“Bullshit.” Lines between his eyebrows.
Her wolf was at once amused and delighted. “Scout’s honor.” Her parents had been—according to her mother—“deliriously ecstatic” at their surprise pregnancy soon after they’d celebrated the mating of their eldest child.
Indigo had been born a mere four years later.
“Huh.” A long pause as they peeled. “So, you have a date for the mating ceremony?”
It felt good to be flirted with, to exercise her own rusty flirtation skills. “Are you telling me you’re not taken?”
A shrug. “I didn’t want to make anyone jealous, so I was going to go stag, but now…” A look so charming it could’ve come from a feline. Impressive, given that Sam was human.
She almost said yes—he was adorable and sexy and frank about his attraction to her. But … he was so innocent. In his late twenties and clearly both tough and courageous from what she’d seen of his actions on the battlefield, but not even a little hard. Though the actual age gap between them was likely to be five or six years, she felt ancient in comparison. “I’m not good for you, Sam.”
His smile faded at her quiet words, his brown eyes velvet soft and intent. “Maybe I’m good for you, hmm?” He peeled another potato, as if waiting for her to say something else. When she didn’t, he issued a dramatic sigh. “Fine, I’ll accept defeat—on one condition.”
God, but she liked him. “Doesn’t sound much like accepting defeat.”
“I’m a SnowDancer.” A sinful grin. “Promise you’ll dance as many dances with me as I want.”
“Just dancing,” she said, pinning him with a grim stare. It wouldn’t be fair to Sam to permit him to think it might progress any further—not when her wolf remained fixated on another man. The painful, unwanted desire was something she’d conquer, but she would not hurt anyone else along the way.
“Okay.” Sam’s suspiciously meek agreement was followed by a smug smile.
Adorable, she thought again, knowing he’d definitely try to sneak a kiss if nothing else. “Sam.” Laughter cancelled out her attempt to be stern. All at once, she felt light and young and carefree, something she’d never again expected to feel.
Dimple appearing to dangerous effect, he touched her boot with his, playful as a pup. “We’ll have fun.”
“Yes,” she said, her wolf padding happily inside her skin, “I think we will.”
RESTED and calmed by the time he’d spent in San Diego before returning to the den on an early morning flight, with his parents and their charges to follow that afternoon, Riaz helped set up the sound system for the ceremony—well, mostly he hefted things while the techs told him what to do. “I think they’re enjoying this a little too much,” he said to Elias when he and the senior soldier paused for a water break.
“How often do they get to give orders to a lieutenant?” Elias grinned … and almost tumbled forward when a small whirlwind attacked him from behind, wrapping her arms around his legs.
Throwing his bottle of water toward Riaz, Elias reached back to grab Sakura, hauling her up into his arms. “You almost made me do a face-plant, baby girl.”
Sakura giggled, her fine features painted with the well-known markings of a fictional warrior princess. “Neal was chasing me.” She peered over his shoulder. “There he comes!” Wriggling out of her father’s hold, she took off around the corner, arms and legs pumping with a strength that belied her thin frame.
A boy her age streaked by a moment later, a fluorescent green water bomb held in hand.
Wolf stretching in amusement, Riaz returned Elias’s water bottle. “Looks like the kids have started the party early.”
Instead of replying in kind, the senior soldier stared after where the children had disappeared, his expression pensive.
“Don’t worry,” Riaz said, thinking Eli was worried the boy would hurt Sakura. “Drew checked the water bombs. They don’t hit with any kind of impact—it’s just about getting the other person wet.”
“What? Oh.” Elias shook his head, shoving a hand through his sweat-damp hair. “No, it’s not that.” A pause as he drank. “Thing is … I haven’t seen that smile on her face since before the burns.”
Hit by laser fire in an unprovoked Pure Psy attack, Elias had suffered injuries so severe, he’d been in shock by the time they got him to the infirmary. Little Sakura had been disconsolate—she was the apple of her daddy’s eye, her sadness all the more poignant for being so silent. She’d been this big-eyed, shocked waif it had broken the pack’s heart to see.
Riaz knew both Eli and his mate, Yuki, continued to worry about the long-term impact of the trauma on their child. “It’ll take time,” he said, his mind on another child, another father, “but she’ll get over it. Kids are tougher than adults think.”