Authors: Vivi Andrews
Tags: #Canada;Yukon Territory;shifters;old flame;second chances
Eleven years ago. Lone Pine Pride, Montana…
Moira rushed along the path, her feet barely touching the ground. She was here. Finally. It had taken her a few weeks to tie up loose ends in Canada before she could follow Hugo back to Lone Pine. Three excruciatingly long weeks.
They’d gone their separate ways in the morning—Hugo to complete some undisclosed mission for Lone Pine and Moira to begin packing up her life in Canada. They’d kept in touch via email—sporadically, whenever Internet connections were available—and though Moira had told herself to moderate her expectations every time she logged on, her heart would soar whenever she saw his name in her inbox. And she could barely describe the sensation that had shivered through her body the first time she’d seen his signature line.
That had to mean something, didn’t it? A man didn’t sign his correspondence that way to just anyone.
They hadn’t spoken of plans, of the future, but he’d told her he was looking forward to her arrival at the pride and his emails were so affectionate, so charming from such a grumpy bear, she knew she couldn’t be imagining the connection between them. For the first time in her life, when she fantasized about her future, that future had a face.
And any minute she would see that face again.
She was finally here.
She almost danced up the steps to Hugo’s rustic little bungalow. It was late, almost midnight, but she’d promised she would come see him as soon as she arrived—and she hadn’t been able to wait another day.
Pausing on the stoop, she smoothed her hands over her curls, tugging one forward to frame her face. She adjusted her shirt—carefully chosen to be casual, but low-cut enough to give a tantalizing view of her rather-impressive-if-she-did-say-so-herself curves. Her wrap skirt could be whipped off for easy access and her sandals were comfy enough for tramping around the pride, but gave her an extra couple of inches so she wouldn’t have to leap quite so high to reach Hugo’s lips.
No more stalling. If he was home, he’d probably heard her approach. Moira rapped out a jaunty pattern on the door.
There was a long pause before she heard the squeak of bedsprings and the thud of feet hitting the floor. He’d been asleep, she realized as steps shuffled toward the door.
Maybe she wouldn’t keep him from his bed for long… She could join him there—
Provided he was alone. For a brief, horrifying moment, it occurred to Moira that she might not find him without feminine company. It had been three weeks and they hadn’t made any promises. Then the door opened and there he was. Bare-chested, with a pair of threadbare pajama pants clinging to his hips. Blinking sleepily. Rubbing the back of his neck with one massive palm in a way that made his pecs stand out in delicious relief.
And behind him, the bed was empty.
It wasn’t the passionate cry she’d envisioned, inviting her to jump into his arms. He sounded sleep muddled and confused rather than eager to rip her clothes from her body, but she’d met her share of bears who were slow to rouse, so she wouldn’t hold his lack of enthusiasm against him.
“Hello, Hugo.” She smiled. “Did you miss me?”
“Did I…?” His brow crinkled. “When did you get here?”
“Just now. I dropped my stuff and came straight here.”
Wake up, Hugo. Wake up and ravish me
. “I couldn’t wait to see you.”
He nodded sleepily. “Right. Yeah, it’s good to see you. Do you want to come in?”
“I’d like that,” she said, barely managing to stop herself from jumping for joy.
She slipped past him into the one-room bungalow. It was sparsely furnished and there weren’t a lot of knick-knacks around that could be knocked over by a lumbering bear, but it still had a certain hominess that was distinctly appealing. Or maybe she just liked it because it was his.
He shut the door and turned to face her. He was so handsome, even more massive and masculine than her memory had painted him. His hair stuck up in the back from the pillow and all that skin on display…
Come to Mama.
She’d envisioned a thousand different reunions, fantasized a dozen clever opening lines, but all of them bled from her mind when she saw him. All she wanted was to touch, to kiss, to relight the fire that had been waiting for him.
Moira closed the distance between them, going up on her toes, reaching up to draw his head down to hers—
“Whoa.” He jerked back, setting her away from him, his long arms extended all the way as he gripped her shoulders. “Moira…”
There was surprise in his eyes. Shock. It hammered into Moira’s chest. How could he be surprised?
“I know before we—but I thought you understood.” He cleared his throat, gruff and awkward. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to make a habit of, you know,
A habit. The hammering in her chest was her heart now, drumming fast and impossibly loud until she could barely hear herself think over the sound. “You said… I thought…”
Hugo grimaced. “I’m sorry—”
Don’t apologize for that night. Please don’t apologize for the best night of my life.
“I’d had a lot to drink. I honestly don’t remember everything I said.”
“You told me you wanted me to come to the pride.”
He nodded. “Right. Yes. Of course I did. We need you. We need someone with your experience with shifter healing.”
need you. Not I. Hugo didn’t need or want her. Her heart continued to drown out her thoughts. “We…that night…”
He grimaced, guilt washing his features until she could almost hate him. “I told you about Lucienne. I thought you understood that my heart was already engaged elsewhere. What happened between you and me was nice,
She hated the word nice. She would never be able to hear it again without hating it.
“But I thought you understood it was just a one-time thing. I warned you that I was unavailable.”
Had he? When he was telling her about his undying passion for Lucienne and she had heard a request for her to help him move on, for her to
him of his heartache, had he really been trying to warn her away?
“You told me it was impossible. You can never be with her. You know that.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that I love her.”
She realized he was still holding her shoulders and wrenched away, stumbling backward. She wanted desperately to sit—her legs didn’t want to hold her anymore—but the only place to sit was the bed and she was
doing that. Moira gripped one bedpost and locked her knees. “You can’t have her,” she repeated.
“I know. I’ve always known that. Just like I know she’s the One. If I can’t have her, I’ll be alone.”
Anger began to slither sinuously through her shock. “You can’t be serious.”
He frowned. “Moira, I wouldn’t joke about this.”
“Do you hear how foolish you sound? Her or no one. Are you even listening to yourself?”
“I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Why not? Because your epic love is so incomprehensible to mere mortals?” Her voice rose, but she made no effort to pull it back to her usual calm tones. “That isn’t love, Hugo. That’s a childish tantrum. You probably think Romeo and Juliet were romantic—but do you know what they were? A couple of stupid children who didn’t have to die if they had just been a little less addicted to the idea of proving they loved more than anyone else in the history of the universe. That isn’t love! That’s self-indulgence.”
His bearded jaw locked. “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear when we met before—”
“I’m sorry you’re so determined to shoot your own happiness in the face to prove your love for a woman who will never be able to return it.”
His expression closed off. “Perhaps you should go.”
“Perhaps I should.” She stormed past him, throwing open the door. She wanted a good closing line. Something to make him realize what a mistake he was making. A perfect parting salvo. But her mind was blank. All she had was anger—and the horrible fear that if she eased her hold on the anger for even a second, the tears would come to fill the cracks.
She stopped on the threshold, looking back at him. He was watching her, that cold, distant anger still marking his face. He was fixed on his path. And hers…
Her path. Her dreams. Her stupid fantasies. They had been nothing more than air and wishful thinking. She’d been wrong. So epically, extraordinarily wrong. He wasn’t her future. He was just a fool.
And she was the fool who had wanted to love him.
Hugo lifted a box, taking one last look around the Alpha’s office. Former Alpha now. Roman was taking over and even though he’d elected to keep his own office down in the main compound of the pride, Greg was moving his things out of the imposing room on the second floor of the Alpha’s big house on the hill.
Beside Hugo, Greg lifted the last of the boxes. They could easily have delegated the task, but Greg had wanted to do this part himself. Hugo’s had been the only offer for help he’d been willing to accept. The two of them had moved him into the room. It was only fitting they would move him out.
It was official now. Greg was no longer Alpha.
“Strange,” Hugo muttered as they tromped out of the office and down the stairs.
Greg didn’t have to ask what was strange. They’d known one another too long. “It was time. Roman is ready.”
Greg shrugged. “As I’m ever likely to be.”
They strode down the hill and along the pathways to the much less ostentatious house where the former Alpha and his mate would be living.
“How does Lucienne feel about all this?” Hugo asked.
Though they worked together in pride matters, Hugo rarely spoke to her in a personal capacity and the two of them were always very careful never to be alone together. At first it had been necessary, but now it was a precaution born of habit.
“It’s an adjustment.” Greg nudged open the door to his new place, holding it open as Hugo crossed through and preceded him toward the office. They dropped the last two boxes among the others and the former Alpha surveyed the stack, his gaze fixed on the boxes when he said, “We won’t be getting divorced.”
Hugo contained his jolt of surprise as Greg slanted him a look. “I wasn’t expecting you to,” he said, uncertain whether the words were a lie.
Greg turned to face him, holding his gaze steadily. “I knew you loved her. Back then. And I was reasonably certain she felt the same. I’ve often wondered if I should apologize for that.”
Hugo’s mouth went dry, a desert with all possible responses trapped inside.
“I never could figure out if I should feel guilty for marrying her or not,” Greg went on. “But it’s been too long now. We’re a matched set. A while back we made the choice to love one another and neither of us wants to go back on that.” Lion-gold eyes watched him steadily. “I figured you had the right to know.”
Hugo nodded, forcing a “Thank you,” past the Sahara of his throat.
He ought to feel...
. Hell if he knew what, but there should definitely be emotion. Disappointment, maybe. Heartbreak.
But no. He just felt a vague sense of…what? Relief to have finally spoken about the past with Greg. A vague satisfaction that Greg and Lucienne had found happiness together.
And desire. Desire to see Moira. To tell her she was right—that Lucienne was free, but she’d chosen to give Greg her freedom and Hugo wasn’t sorry about that for even a second. He didn’t bother trying to parse through why. He just said his goodbyes to the Alpha and went in search of the little she-bear.
Alcohol was not the answer. But neither, Moira mused, was it the problem.
She pushed open the door to the Lion’s Den, the pride’s shifters-only dive bar, and wrinkled her nose at the scent of hops, stale peanuts and two dozen shifters in various states of inebriation. She’d never thought herself the type to
a drink, but it was her day off from the infirmary and all day she’d been plagued by a coiling restlessness, a baseless dissatisfaction.
Without her work to distract her, she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about Hugo and the way she’d torn into him yesterday when she’d patched up his hand. It had been satisfying, unloading all the unspoken words she’d carried around with her. Satisfying—for about fifteen minutes. Then the guilt had started.
She didn’t want to be that woman. Angry and bitter. She’d never been good at holding a grudge and she didn’t want to start now. She was a healer. She wanted to be the kind of woman who could forgive. Who wasn’t still preoccupied by decades old disappointments.
So when she saw Hugo parked in the back corner with a pitcher of ale in front of him, she didn’t turn tail and run—no matter how strong the sense of catastrophic déjà vu that rose up at the sight.
She’d just go apologize. No danger in that. They’d keep things civil, businesslike, and then she’d go to the bar and get Whiskey to pour her a nice glass of merlot to celebrate the burying of the hatchet.
But when Hugo sensed her approach, his head snapped up, his eyes crinkling as if in a smile, and Moira’s heart gave a traitorous thump as he sprang to his feet like a rocket launch. “Moira. I went to the infirmary earlier to see you, but Brandt said you weren’t in today.”
Moira squelched the little frisson of pleasure at the thought that he’d been looking for her. She really needed to get a hold of her emotions where he was concerned. This was ridiculous. “It’s my day off,” she acknowledged inanely.
There were two glasses next to the pitcher. Her face flamed. He was waiting for someone. Of course he was. Probably Lucienne. “I won’t bother you long, I just wanted to—”
“It’s no bother,” he said, still standing beside the table. “Join me. Please.”
“I couldn’t. I just wanted to apologize. Yesterday—”
“No, you were right.”
“I was?” Her heart gave another weird lurch. What was she right about? Why could she suddenly not remember a single word she’d said? All she remembered was the white-hot burn of the anger and the gangrenous ache of the bitterness.
“Join me?” he asked again, thick eyebrows lifting in entreaty.
She was blushing again. Why was she blushing again, dang it? “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
A little smile quirked his mouth, his whiskers twitching. “Friends don’t let friends drink alone.”
“Aren’t you expecting someone?” She flicked a hand at the second glass.
His gaze swung to the glass for only a second before locking back on hers. The man gave incredible eye contact. “I think Whiskey gave me the second glass so I wouldn’t look so pathetic back here drinking by myself. Either that or she’s psychic and knew I would be begging you to join me.”
“I just came over to apologize.”
“And I will accept your apology if you’ll sit and have a drink with me.”
She could hardly say no to that. Moira tucked her chin in a tiny nod, trying not to be thrilled by the broad smile that stretched across Hugo’s face. She slid into the booth opposite him, fighting that warning throb of déjà vu as he settled his massive frame back into the corner.
He poured in silence and she took the cool, tall glass, taking a grateful sip and rolling the yeasty brew over her tongue. She usually gravitated toward wines, but there was something about beer. She’d forgotten how much she liked it.
“I am sorry about tearing into you like that yesterday,” she said.
His heavy shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I deserved it.”
“Well, yes,” she acknowledged with a grin to lighten the words. “But I don’t want to be that woman, carrying that bitterness around inside me.” Another long draught of beer slid smooth and luscious down her throat. “I feel like we never got to know one another properly. We never got past the distraction of our first meeting to become friends.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“We’re friends?” she challenged, not sure why she felt the urge to push back against him like this. She was usually so good at getting along with people, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself from prodding at this big old bear.
“I know you,” he stated as if the words were fact. “And I think you know me too.”
“You know me?” Skepticism coated the words like molasses.
“I know you know the name of every cub born in this pride since you got here. I know you almost never speak up during pride meetings, but when you do everyone listens. I know you like books and movies that make you cry, and you can’t resist angel food cake though you don’t really like chocolate.”
She tucked her chin, studying her beer. He’d been paying attention. She didn’t like the weakness that made her feel so foolishly good at the idea that he did know some part of her.
“I know you would do anything to take the pain away from another person, even if you’re beyond exhaustion and know it might hurt you—because you know you are strong enough to take it.”
She looked up at that, startled. Not that he knew she would heal anyone, but that he understood
she would push herself and take so much onto herself. Because she could take it. She was so small in her human form, few people saw her strength—but he seemed to know it was there. He
her, this big grouchy bear with the soul of a romantic.
His eyes sparkled. “I know you’re beautiful when you’re looking at me like I’m crazy.”
Her face flushed, she struggled to remind herself that he wasn’t flirting. The big old idiot probably didn’t even realize his words could be interpreted as compliments.
There was something different about him today. Lighter and somehow more focused. The way he looked at her…
Lucienne. She needed to remember Lucienne.
“So why the pitcher?” she forced herself to ask, going for a casual tone. “Are we celebrating?” She could celebrate with him. She was the bigger woman. She could overcome her jealousy and toast the fact that he could be with Lucienne now. She
, dang it.
Hugo tipped his head, considering. “Yeah. I think we can call this a celebration.”
She would not be bitter. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” He lifted his glass. “To Greg and Lucienne.”
She frowned, her own glass hitching to a stop en route to tap against his. “What?”
“May Lucienne and Greg have a long and happy life together,” he said, the words firm, his eyes carrying some fierce resolve that Moira couldn’t quite interpret.
Was he really saying what she thought he was saying? He was choosing not to pursue Lucienne? “That’s what we’re celebrating?”
“You were right, you know.”
She shouldn’t ask. She felt like they were slipping down a path that was entirely too familiar, but she heard herself saying, “About what?”
“What you said yesterday.”
“I said a lot of things.”
His lips twitched in his brown beard, but then a searing sobriety entered his eyes. “You do deserve someone who values you.” He didn’t move, but suddenly the world seemed to narrow, as if it was closing in around just the two of them. “I’ve always valued you, Moira.”
She was afraid to believe him, afraid to believe this moment might be for real. “What about Lucienne or no one?” she asked, the words a bare whisper.
He leaned forward then and she matched the movement as if hypnotized. “Eleven years is a long time. Maybe I changed my mind.”
His mind or his heart?
Moira looked down at the pitcher. Déjà vu all over again. She was about to make the same mistake she’d made a decade ago. She could feel it rising up in her, tipping her toward disaster. She could tell herself she didn’t want him, tell herself that his broad shoulders didn’t make her hands itch to grip them and his gleaming eyes didn’t draw her in like the world’s sexiest tractor beam. She could lie to herself. But it was late and the beer had loosened her hold on her denial and he was so close and warm and damned if she didn’t want him more than she wanted the cold dignity that would be salvaged by walking away.
She could regret this tomorrow. Tonight she wanted to be foolish. She wanted the mistake.
Warm invitation lit his gaze. “Why don’t we move this conversation to my place?”