“Good chance the lieutenants are going to kick it off with a speech.” Hawke glanced down, glimpsed the black leather-synth of her boot through the slit, and remembered that hushed night when he’d first allowed himself to hold her, though it had been torture to do only that and nothing more. “Then we’ll dance and celebrate.” Normally, Hawke would be the one who spoke first at any mating or bonding ceremony, letting the new couple know their pairing was accepted and welcome. The impact of that moment was luminous, an inexplicable but powerful something passing between an alpha and his people.
“Dance all night with me?” Sienna asked as they left the den for the walk to the Pack Circle.
He enjoyed the feel of the wind flicking her dress against his legs, the supple warmth of her a familiar caress under the hand he’d placed on her lower back. “I know Tomás is planning to steal a dance, and Drew’s claimed one already.”
“You’re rescinding the no-touching rule for tonight?” It was a laughing tease.
“Since there are no baby cats around, yes.” His wolf snarled at the reminder of her friendship with Kit. “But, on that note—” Not giving her any warning, he bit her on the bared skin of her right shoulder.
“Hawke!” She thrust a hand into his hair, found that instead of pushing him away, she was holding him to her while he licked over the mark with a molten sensuality that made her toes curl.
“There,” he murmured, slits of ice blue visible between lowered lids. “Now everyone knows you’re mine.” Another proprietary lick.
Pulse thudding against her skin, she laughed. “As if people were in any doubt.”
Satisfied—and very alpha—smile on his face, he placed his hand on her lower back again and they continued down the path. “I’ll allow the pack to monopolize you until midnight”—a low murmur that was a rough stroke over her skin—“then I’ll dance with you until the stars fade and the sun rises.”
Heart shattering at the beauty of her mate’s promise, she entered the Pack Circle with him.
The cheer that split the air was deafening. Grinning, Hawke led her to where his lieutenants waited in front of a crowd that included every member of the den’s population, except for the few on security rotation.
Matthias raised his arms to get the pack to quiet down, but gave up the floor to Riley once he had the crowd’s attention. Hawke’s most senior lieutenant stepped forward and, cupping Sienna’s face in his hands, said a single simple word, “Welcome.”
The howl that went up in the clearing was multiharmonic and piercingly joyful, a song that was a gift. Linked as he was to Sienna, Hawke felt her stunned wonder and knew she didn’t realize the significance of the act.
“They’re welcoming you,” he whispered, his chest vibrating with the need to add his voice to the song, “not as my mate, but as their alpha’s mate.” The distinction was important, and when untrammeled sunshine lit up her face, he knew she understood.
A rustle of giggling and whispering sounded on the last echo of the harmony, and suddenly, they were faced with the pups. Tarah stood unobtrusively to the side, where the youngest ones could see her. A graceful wave of her hand and the children began to sing, their voices high and sweet and full of innocence fragile as glass.
He saw from the surprise on Riley’s face that the kids had managed to keep this a secret. His wolf’s heart burst in pride. Tucking Sienna’s hand to his side, he glanced down to see an iridescent shimmer over the night-sky of her gaze. Her cousin, Marlee, was among the singers, as was her brother, Toby—still young enough to not mind joining the children, but old and lanky enough that he’d had to find a space right at the back. He held a chubby two-year-old in his arms, her singing enthusiastic if not altogether coherent.
It was on the final chorus that his mate surprised him, adding her voice with a playful grace that delighted the children. Afterward, hands linked, the pups took multiple giggling bows while thunderous applause filled the clearing. When a little girl escaped on sturdy legs to make a beeline for Hawke, he scooped her up and received a bright-eyed and somewhat sloppy kiss for his trouble.
Grinning, he passed her to her laughing father, her baby pink dress frothing over the man’s sun-browned arm. “This one’s going to give you trouble.”
“She’s the nursery flirt,” the other man said, tapping at the pup’s nose in loving reproof.
It was a far more elegant female who came forward next, her petite body sheathed in an ankle-length cheongsam of deep yellow silk, her glossy black hair in a neat twist. Nell represented not simply the maternals, but everyone in SnowDancer who didn’t identify as a dominant. In her arms she held a beautiful handmade quilt, the craftsmanship exquisite. “Each family in the den contributed a piece to this, thus each block is unique.” She handed the precious gift to Sienna.
Reaching behind her to another one of the maternal females, Nell accepted what appeared to be an old-fashioned tapestry. “We created this from threads sent in by families across the territory.” This, she put into Hawke’s arms, pressing her lips to his cheek before turning to do the same to Sienna, the evocative brown of her uptilted eyes shimmering with affection. “You are loved, and you are ours.”
Handling the gifts with the care they deserved, Hawke and Sienna gave them into the gentle keeping of two of the elders who stood with them. A moment later, quiet, often reserved Alexei stepped forward and leaned in to kiss Sienna’s cheek, one strong hand cupping her left shoulder. “Welcome.” The young lieutenant’s hair glinted gold in the colored lights strung across the Pack Circle as he turned to Hawke and began swearing his fealty.