The Martin she’d known hadn’t been the standoffish man he so often was with strangers, a man secretly uncomfortable in social situations. He’d been so sweet in private, with a wicked sense of humor and a way of looking at her as if she were the most alluring woman in the world. Not only that, but he’d celebrated her achievements as she’d celebrated his.
She’d taken him to dinner in a posh restaurant when he was awarded his doctorate, and stranger to the kitchen though he had been, he’d once put on an apron and baked her a cake when she’d completed a particularly grueling training course. It had collapsed in the middle and been uncooked around the sides and it had been wonderful. They’d giggled and gotten drunk on cheap pink champagne, eating so much cake that they’d solemnly sworn, “Never, ever again.”
That was what she’d tried to save for so long, unable and unwilling to believe that something so innocent and bright could sour into such hostility. She’d thought if she tried hard enough, she’d be able to fix it. It was how her brain worked—even as a child who had found martial arts didn’t suit her blunt style of movement, but who knew the skill would come in useful as a soldier, she’d just gritted her teeth and practiced over and over until her body moved with flawless grace.
Only after she’d been broken on the ruins of their relationship had she understood that no matter how hard she tried, it wouldn’t have mattered. Because somewhere along the way, a poison had infiltrated their relationship. Quiet and stealthy, it had eaten into the fabric of emotion that bound them until that fabric was threadbare … and her wolf had withdrawn totally from the relationship.
Martin had known. It had only deepened his resentment.
Moisture on her cheek, a trail leading down to her mouth. Salt. It was the taste of the first tear she’d shed since shutting the door in Martin’s face over a year ago, knowing she’d never again open it. So fragile, the single iridescent droplet nonetheless shattered her defenses. Dropping to her knees, she allowed the sorrow to pour out of her, her shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs.
RIAZ caught Adria’s scent as he ran, and snarled, frustrated that her phantom presence continued to haunt him. When it grew stronger instead of fading, he realized she hadn’t returned to the vehicle but had instead continued on foot. He would’ve carried on, except that he caught the barest whisper of a sound that made his wolf snap to attention. Frowning, he moved close enough to ensure that she wasn’t in trouble … and heard the raw, painful sound of a woman whose heart was breaking.
His chest knotted, protective instincts roaring to the surface, but he didn’t approach. Adria was a proud, strong woman, wouldn’t appreciate anyone finding her at such a vulnerable moment, her defenses shattered. But even as he told himself to leave, the ragged sound of her tears ripped him apart.
She jerked up her head the instant he came into view, her face ravaged by tears. “Go!”
Wanting to hunt down whatever had so devastated her, but aware it wasn’t a physical foe he could defeat, he went down on his haunches and took her into his arms. She began to struggle, all sharp elbows and tightly fisted hands. “Let me help, damn you.” It wasn’t the smoothest or most charming of things to say, but it came from the gut and the heart, his voice rough with the wolf’s frustration at being unable to do anything.
Another heartrending sob, and then she was melted wax in his arms, as if she couldn’t deal with the agonizing depth of her pain and hold him off at the same time. Cuddling her as close as he could, his knees spread to tuck her in between, he cupped the back of her head with one hand, wrapped an arm around her waist … and simply held her as she cried.
He’d seen strong women cry before, but never like this. Until it felt as if she were being torn apart from the inside out. Hand clenched in her hair, tangling in her braid, he pressed his cheek to the inky black and let her fingernails dig into his back as she wrapped her arms around him in a fierce embrace.
A minute, a lifetime, later, those hands turned into fists again and she punched at him. The blows had no impact because of her position, but the agony in them was excruciating. His wolf raged at its helplessness, but even then, it pressed against Riaz’s skin, wanting to soothe, to reassure. But all they could do was hold her, the scent of crushed berries in ice drowning in salt.
The wind was quiet, the sun lower in the sky when she went silent, lying against him in a way that said all the fight had been taken out of her. He’d known her a fragment of time, but he hated seeing her so defeated. Adria was pride and spirit and strength. Not a woman who gave up. “Did you lose someone?” Death was the only thing he could think of to explain the depth of her despair.
“It’s been long dead.” Rasped out words. “I just wasn’t ready to mourn until now.”
He rubbed his cheek against her hair, one wolf attempting to comfort another. “Do you feel better?”
“I feel like I got run over.” And that quickly, she was Adria again.
Shoving away and to her feet, she walked to the pool at the bottom of a tiny waterfall he could just make out, cupping her hands in the cold water and using it to splash her face. At any other time, with any other woman, he would’ve waited, but he could tell from the stiff curve of her spine that she hated the fact he’d seen her like this, so he turned and walked away.
His wolf snarled but didn’t resist. Because it, too, understood that Adria was no helpless maiden in distress. Riaz had seen her fight beside him with unwavering courage, witnessed her steely-eyed determination as she crawled into the line of fire to drag an injured packmate out of the danger zone, trusted her to watch his back when the enemy threatened to surround them.