Authors: Vivi Andrews
Tags: #Canada;Yukon Territory;shifters;old flame;second chances
Hugo could hear Moira moving around in her apartment when he knocked on the door. He’d received her text while he was with Lucienne and slipped away as quickly as possible. Things were good between him and the lioness. Better than they’d ever been, actually, because they were no longer dancing around all the things they couldn’t say. They could talk frankly about the might-have-beens without the keen ache of buried emotion.
If only he could be so certain of where he stood with Moira. He’d already screwed things up with her once.
He tapped on the door again, softly calling her name when the door didn’t immediately open. “Moira. It’s me.”
The door jerked open so fast he had to leap back to avoid a bloody forehead.
“What are you doing here?” Anger burned bright in eyes that were red and puffy.
“Have you been crying?”
“I have allergies,” she snapped. “What do you want?”
What the hell?
“What happened? Is everything—?”
He didn’t bother wondering how she’d known. That wouldn’t help him. “I just wanted to talk to her—”
“About me?” She threw up a hand in a stop sign. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
He shuffled closer, bracing a hand on the door so she couldn’t slam it in his face. “Can we have this conversation inside? So at least some of the details won’t be public knowledge by morning?”
Moira glared up at him, petite and mulish, but finally stepped back, waving him in. He breathed easier having gotten through the door, but his relief couldn’t touch his disquiet at her anger—it was like trying to stop a flood with a Dixie cup.
She closed the door and moved away from it, as if too restless to stay still. “You told me you and Lucienne were done.”
“We are.” He pushed sincerity through the words.
He stopped reaching for her, taken aback by the single harsh word. “What?”
“Did you turn her down? Did she offer to leave Greg for you?”
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” Moira bit out, putting distance between them until she was as far as she could get from him without leaving the room.
Hugo grimaced. “Lucienne and Greg are staying together. But that isn’t why I—”
“So I’m the consolation prize.”
“I am. I’m the one you want by default when you realize you can’t have the love of your life.”
Maybe at one point she would have been, he couldn’t deny that, but not now. Things had changed. He had changed. “It isn’t like that. I—”
“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” She folded her arms tight around her, glaring at him through eyes that glistened wetly. “And I’m a prize idiot for falling for the same bullshit twice. I deserve to be chosen—and not by
“You weren’t,” he swore. “I only went to see her tonight for closure. There’s nothing between us anymore.”
“Because she rejected you!” Moira shouted, then sucked in a breath and shook her head sharply, bringing herself back under control. “You’re only here because she rejected you again.”
“No. I came to you because…”
Shit. Why had he come? The moment of truth had arrived and panic shivered through him at the idea of exposing his vulnerabilities to her. But if he didn’t, he lost her and that was unacceptable.
He’d used his feelings for Lucienne as a buffer between himself and anyone who might touch his heart, hiding from commitment with the grand illusory passion, but no more. He didn’t know what he felt for Moira, didn’t know where this would lead, but one thing he was sure of.
“I want to try.”
It was all he could offer. He’d been too certain before, with Lucienne. And it had been a false certainty. At least he knew the confusion he’d always felt for Moira was real.
Moira just looked at him, her eyes dark and wary.
“You were right. I have been focusing on something I could never have because it was safer than giving myself over to something that might be real—and really break me. I chose pining for Lucienne because if I’d already picked my heartache, I never had to worry about getting hurt.”
“No. You just hurt
. And anyone else stupid enough to want more from you.”
“Moira, I’m sorry. So sorry—”
“Sorry isn’t enough. And neither is
. It’s too little too late, Hugo.”
He felt it then, the first squeezing ache in his chest. “Don’t. Please don’t make the same mistake I did.”
She laughed, a rough brittle sound. “Unrequited devotion? Not likely.”
“That isn’t what I meant. I walked away from a chance with you for the stupidest, fabricated reasons. Don’t hide from what we could have. After all these years, there’s still something between us. Even after all the stupid shit I did to screw things up, there’s still something there. I know you feel it.” He crossed the room, not touching her, but coming close enough that they were breathing the same air. “Lucienne was an ideal for me, a fantasy, and maybe I’ll always feel something for her, but love isn’t something you throw into a void of hopeless devotion.
showed me that. You loved me when I didn’t know I needed it. Let me try to deserve it now. Let me try to deserve you.”
So this was what a broken heart felt like. It wasn’t a fracture. It was a burn. The backs of her eyes, the back of her throat, her chest—everything burned. She looked up at Hugo—the big dumb bear—and fire seared through her in crackling waves.
She could say yes. She could let him
. But it felt like weakness. Felt like a mistake. She couldn’t deny that she had loved him, but…
“I can’t.” She needed more than an attempt. She’d let her heart run away with her on far less last time, but she was done being that fool.
He reached for her and she dodged past him. She was halfway to the door when something stopped her. Some last shred of hope, perhaps, the one she’d never quite managed to squelch. She turned, facing the bear. “Why me? Why now? Am I just the rebound from your great love?”
“No. Of course not. Tell me what you need from me, and I’ll do it. What can I do to prove myself to you? I will fight for you, if you just tell me how.”
“I don’t need you to fight. I want you to choose me, not because it’s me or no one, not because I’m the result of some romantic ultimatum you’ve built up in your head. I’m not a prize. I deserve more than that.” She deserved more than a man who would
to want her.
She turned and marched out the door—leaving him behind in her own apartment and not caring. She needed to get away from him.
Moira didn’t often call on her bear. The lazy strength that slumbered in the back of her mind didn’t demand much of her, but it was a constant comfort, one she reached for now. As soon as she hit the path, she shifted form—fur rippling over her limbs as they swelled and stretched with solid strength. Her clothes were tatters and she batted away the shredded remains before loping toward the woods. The trees closed around her and she padded deeper into the comforting dark of the forest. There was a hollow not far from here, she knew it well, knew the earth would enfold her. She could go to ground, curling up and hibernating until it stopped hurting, until she could finally stop kicking herself for being such a fool again. Until she forgot the look in Hugo’s eyes when he asked her how to fight for her. Until the last clinging thread of hope finally snapped and her heart was finally free.
“Hugo’s here again.”
Moira looked up from the computer with a muted growl she couldn’t quite suppress. Grace stood in her office doorway, hip cocked, lips quirked in barely contained amusement.
“Tell him to leave,” Moira said, turning back to the computer. “I won’t see him.”
“I already did,” Grace announced cheerfully.
Moira’s head snapped up and she frowned. “You did what?”
Grace shrugged, unrepentant. “I figured you wouldn’t mind if I jumped right to the kicking him to the curb portion of the proceedings, since that’s been modus operandi for the last four days.”
Four days. Four days since she’d turned him down and four days that he’d been showing up in the infirmary—sometimes with presents, sometimes just with a pathetic hang-dog expression that had all their pride mates who had seen it looking at her speculatively when she threw him out.
“Kudos, by the way,” Grace went on brightly. “Not every woman can turn a big bad bear into her personal slave. Mad respect. Not that I didn’t already think you were badass, but I kinda had you pegged more for the give-in-at-the-first-sign-of-groveling type than the make-his-ass-work-for-it kind of girl.”
Moira frowned. “That isn’t what I’m doing.” She didn’t want to torture him. She just wanted all of this to be over so she could move on.
At Grace’s extended silence—wildly out of character—Moira looked up and found the lioness watching her with a single brow arched high. “Don’t tell me you’re kicking him to the curb for real. I’m all for making him pay, but…” She paused, making a show of thinking. “No, you’re right. You should never see him again. I mean, I’ve seen how you are when you’re together and why would you want to be with someone who lights you up like that and brings out a passion you’ve never displayed for anything else ever in your life. You’re totally right. What’s worth fighting for in that?”
. Why did everything have to be about fighting? “He hurt me,” she snapped, hating that she had to defend herself. Wasn’t Grace supposed to be on her side? What happened to feminine solidarity?
“Can you forgive him?” Grace asked.
“I don’t want to.” And she didn’t care how petty that made her sound. She wanted someone she didn’t have to forgive. She didn’t want Hugo to be it for her. “I want someone who would choose me from the start. He had his chance.”
Grace nodded sagely. “He was an idiot. Men are idiots. You’re right. So the question is, do you want to be the woman who gets to be right or be the woman who gets screwed into happy oblivion?”
“I don’t know what I want.”
Another sage nod. “Women are idiots too.” Grace shoved away from the doorjamb. “Think about it. You can be right or you can get the guy.”
Moira gritted her teeth. “How can someone who is so pragmatic in every other way be such a romantic idiot?”
“Are you talking about him or you? Because one of you needs to stop being an idiot and it’s unlikely to be him because he’s got too much testosterone poisoning to think clearly.” Grace shrugged. “If I were you’d I’d grab onto happy. It’s hard enough to come by without spitting in its face when it does come along.”
Moira glared after the lioness’s retreating back. It was easy to say that, easy to dispense forgive-and-forget counsel, but a lot harder to open up her wounded heart to the man who’d hurt it in the first place.
But Grace was right that they couldn’t go on as they were. Something had to give.
Maybe it was time to open her heart up to someone else…
The Lion’s Den was packed. Moira had never been here on a Friday night and she was already regretting her decision to come here on her “date” with Aaron Brandt as they wove through the crowds around the pool table toward the smaller tables clustered in the back. It had seemed like a good idea at the time—someplace they would both be comfortable, helping to keep things casual and take the pressure off this as a big romantic evening.
She liked Dr. Brandt—
Aaron, must remember to think of him as Aaron—
but she’d never really thought of him
until she was desperate for someone to take her mind off Hugo and he’d walked into the office they shared. He really was the obvious choice. They had so much in common. They got along well together. It was a miracle they’d never tried this in the past.
—held out her chair for her and Moira smiled gratefully as she sank onto it. He took the other chair and said something. Moira lifted a hand to her ear. “Sorry?” she called over the noise.
“Crowded!” Aaron shouted back.
She smiled and nodded enthusiastically. She scanned the tables around them, looking for something else to kick off awkward first date conversation with this man she’d worked with every day for the last decade.
There was Lila, perched on the lap of her beau, Santiago, laughing at something Whiskey said as the bartender slid a pair of pints to the couple. And there was Kelly Mather, with his cowboy hat and ever-present smile, leaning down to whisper something to Grace as the scarred and surly tiger, Dominec, growled at him to take his next shot at the pool table.
And there in the corner booth—
Moira’s heart stuttered.
And he wasn’t alone.
Moira couldn’t see the woman across from him from this angle, but she could tell the woman wasn’t blonde. Not Lucienne then. Who was he here with? What had happened to fighting for her, huh? Sure, she’d ignored his attempts to woo her for the last two weeks, but was that really all the devotion she merited? Lucienne had gotten two and a half
and Moira didn’t even get two and a half weeks?
“Moira?” Brandt shouted. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes.” She forced her eyes off the corner booth, but they just ricocheted right back there. The burning was back—but it wasn’t the burning ache of heartbreak, it was the white-hot flame of righteous indignation. Whoever he was with now deserved to know exactly what she was getting into with Hugo. “Actually, no,” Moira said to Brandt. “I’ll be right back.”
Springing out of her seat, she stalked to the corner booth. She still half-expected to see Lucienne, so she stared for a moment when she recognized Aubry. The leopardess was a bit on the young side for Hugo, but she was romantically unattached. Available. What the hell was he thinking?
“Moira.” Surprise colored the big dumb bear’s delicious rumbly voice.
Moira pivoted to pin Hugo with her fiercest glare. “May I have a word with you?” she bit out.
His brow furrowed in confusion, but he excused himself to Aubry and rose to trail her to the side door where Moira pulled him out into the brisk night. She rounded on him even as the door snapped shut. “What do you think you’re doing? Yesterday you were begging to see me and now this?”
Something warm gleamed in his eyes and his lips quirked, but his words were serious. “You told me to grow up. I’m trying that. No more one woman or no one. Not even you.”
She glowered up at him. “Always with the
,” she grumbled.
“What are you doing here?”
She shoved her chin up pugnaciously. “I’m on a date as well.”
In a pointless attempt to forget you, you big lummox.
His eyebrows bounced up. “With Brandt?”
“He’s a good man and a good friend. At least I know he will never treat me like I don’t deserve to be loved.”
Hugo flinched. “That’s never what I wanted. I’m so sorry, Moira. I know I was a bastard. No wonder you can’t forgive me.”
And just like that all the steam drained out of her anger. “I always forgive you, Hugo. That’s how you keep getting the chance to hurt me. Or heck, maybe I’m hurting myself. It’s easy to blame you for not wanting me, but I should have made myself move on long ago.”
He reached out and suddenly her hand was enfolded in his—the grip warm and callused and too comforting to let her pull away. “Moira, please,” he said, rumbling low. “I know you’ve already said no, but I just want a chance. That’s all I’m asking for.”
She grimaced. “How many chances did you ask Lucienne for? How many times did you beg her?”
His brow pulled in confusion. “Never.”
“What?” Moira blinked, shocked.
“I never asked her. I never begged. I never fought for her, not like I will fight for you if you’ll let me.”
Moira felt her entire life teetering on those words. She knew it shouldn’t matter, it shouldn’t make any difference, but it did.
In this one way, she was more to him than Lucienne had been. All these years, she’d felt like she was somehow
than the woman he loved. She’d felt inadequate—but how much of that had she built up in her own mind?
She needed to stop building castles in her mind and wiping them out the same way. Facts. She was a pragmatist. She needed facts.
“How many times did you kiss her?” Moira asked, realizing she didn’t know, had never asked how far their unspoken attraction had progressed.
“None. We wouldn’t have done that to Greg.”
“Did you tell her that you loved her?”
He shook his head. “It would only have made things harder.”
She tried to stay pragmatic, but her heart only needed one question answered. “Do you love me?”
He went still, choosing his next words carefully. “I want to. If you’ll let me.”
Her hopes wanted to fall, but she had to give him credit for not giving her empty words. If she was honest—and it was time to be honest—she didn’t know if what she felt for him was love either. But maybe it could be.
“I suppose neither of us really know how to be in love,” she admitted. She wet her lips—someone had to stop being an idiot. “Maybe we should give it a try.”
wasn’t such a dirty word after all. Maybe it could be a beginning.
His smile blinded, making her heart lurch. “I’d like that.”
He bent and kissed her, the touch soft and cautious, as if their fragile truce could shatter at any moment. Moira pulled back. “We both have dates inside,” she reminded him.
Hugo nodded and pulled open the door to the Lion’s Den, peering inside, then pausing and grinning over his shoulder at her. “Brandt is hitting on Aubry.”
Moira rolled her eyes. “Of course he is.”
Hugo cocked his head. “Should we leave them to it?”
Moira tugged his hand off the door, letting it fall closed again. “Who knows. It might be true love. Who are we to interfere with that?”
Maybe true love wasn’t crashing cymbals and a symphony playing the first time you looked at someone. Maybe it wasn’t spinning fantasies for happily-ever-afters in the air or pining for someone for a quarter of a century. Maybe it was just a choice. A choice to give your heart and hold on tight.
And if it was a choice, perhaps it was past time she made it.
Or at least gave it a try.
She reached for her lover and pulled him down for a kiss. Eleven years and a lifetime ago, she met him, but this, this was where they began. Hugo’s lips touched hers…and the rest was history.