When a stranger shows up in her front yard claiming he’s her mate, Ari Fallow wants to laugh in Dane Griffin’s face. But the sleek, sophisticated jaguar makes her hormones hum with a desire she can’t deny. She almost wants to believe his claim that she’s been his since birth.
Her father, however, is still sore over the fact Dane marked her when she was only minutes old. After summoning a pack of wolves to their quiet community for Ari to make her own decision about which male she wants, Dane's original plan to sever his ties to Ari fly out the window. He can’t lose her again. This time, he's playing for keeps.
Dane took Ari to the changing table and laid her down so he could spread the blanket open and get a good look.
She was so small. A month premature, according to all the adults. But she was still perfectly formed, perfect in every way, except for the blood and slime covering her from head to toe.
Wanting it off, he morphed into his jaguar and swiped out his tongue, letting his animal instincts take over as he cleaned her, licking her spotless. Ari allowed the ministration for a while but grew fussy toward the end; he could feel her hunger pangs in his own belly as hers cramped, needing nourishment.
“Don’t worry,” he assured after flashing back into his human form so he could smooth his hand over her thick, dark hair and rewrap her. “Once your mommy’s better, she’ll give you a great big drink. Doesn’t that sound good?”
But no noise rolled down the hall, not even Jaycee’s screams. He picked Ari up and paced the floor with her, jiggling her to keep her happy. But she could feel his tension and fear, and grew upset.
He wasn’t sure how long he could honestly comfort her. What if Jaycee didn’t get better? What if she died?
Ari began to cry in earnest.
If his nanny died, who would take care of her baby? His Ari. He needed to look after her safety himself. He needed to ensure she stayed healthy. Alive.
Instinctively, he knew what to do.
Laying Ari back on the changing table, he rolled her tiny body onto its side, facing her away from him, and lowered her blanket just enough to expose her nape. After placing a brief kiss to the tender spot, he sank his teeth into her flesh, his jaguar canines growing just enough to impale.
Initially, she jerked and whined, but as he poured strength and life into her, she settled and relaxed, then cooed. When he retracted the fangs and licked the bite closed, she let out a little sigh and closed her eyes as if ready for a peaceful nap. Dane gathered her back into his arms, not fully comprehending what he’d done, simply knowing he’d fixed her for the time being.
Vaguely, he understood he’d bonded her life force to his. But that was okay with him; he already knew she was his. Physically biting her merely seemed like a symbolic act at this point. He didn’t regret it at all; it would ensure she wouldn’t immediately starve to death.
Ari slumbered against him, her cheek resting alongside his heartbeat as the two organs thumped in sync with each other. He watched her as he sat quiet in the nursery’s rocking chair, soaking in every feature of her delicate, newborn face. He felt calmer now that he’d taken measures to protect her. With his own energy now swirling inside her, she had a better chance of survival.
He’d just kissed her temple when Knox appeared in the doorway. “Where’s the baby?” he asked in a quiet, hushed voice. “Jaycee wants to see her.”
“Jaycee’s awake?” Dane asked, springing to his feet and waking Ari in the process. “Is she okay?”
Ari’s father nodded. “She’s weak, but I think she’ll be fine. Give me the baby.”
Dane resisted the urge to grip Ari tighter. A full-blood wolf shifter, Knox Roland was one scary male. Like Darth Vader, he could probably cut off Dane’s air supply by just looking at him.
Three-fourths human, Dane’s blood was so diluted, he knew he would never stand a chance against a full shape-shifter like Knox. Plus, Knox was Ari’s father. He couldn’t begrudge Ari her father, so he regretfully held the infant out, trying not to feel bereft when Knox scooped her up and paused a moment to stare in awe at her face.
“She’s so perfect,” he whispered, sounding stunned.
Of course she was perfect, Dane wanted to give the indignant mutter. How could his Ari be anything other than perfect? He bristled when Knox leaned down to nuzzle his nose against her cheek. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to be the only male to touch her, but even her own father’s attention chafed him raw, an abrasive irritation.
Knox barely grazed her delicate skin, however, before he paused and yanked back with a growl. His nose twitching, he slowly pinned an accusing stare on Dane.
“My God,” he whispered, sounding horrified. “What have you done, cub?”
Dane blinked, startled the wolf shifter had been able to smell the bond…but even more startled Knox did not look pleased by it.
“I-I-I protected her,” he said, feeling suddenly unsure of his actions.
Shouldn’t Knox be happy he’d taken measures to keep Ari safe? He knew a blood relative couldn’t bond with her; why wasn’t Knox pleased Dane had stepped in to help?
“You didn’t protect her,” Knox boomed, looking angry enough to slaughter Dane. “You just bonded with her. Do you even know what that means? You made her your mate.”
Dane blinked. He had?
Oh, well. His mother and father were mates. Knox and Jaycee were mates. Since he already knew Ari would always be his, he didn’t mind if she was his mate. And just because his mom and dad liked to kiss a lot and Knox and Jaycee were constantly hugging each other, didn’t mean he and Ari had to do anything gross like that. They would be the awesome kind of mates.
He shrugged, nonplussed by Knox’s explanation. “Okay.”
Knox fumed, his face growing red. “No,” he shouted, making Ari whimper. “It’s not okay. She’s much too young. You’re much too young. This is unnatural. It goes against everything a mate should be. You just doomed her…and yourself.”
“But how?” Dane asked. He hadn’t doomed her; he’d protected her, helped her.
“When you hit puberty and she’s still just a little girl, trust me, kid, you’ll know exactly how. Because I’ll be damned before I let you claim her before she’s of age.”
With that, he tucked Ari close and marched out of the room, fury vibrating out his every pore.
About the Author:
Authors Bio: Miranda lives with her wonderful, Brad-Pitt-lookalike husband (hey, they're both blond-haired and blue-eyed) and adorable still-needs-to-learn-the-meaning-of-NO toddler daughter on their spacious corn-field-and-cow-pasture-front property in Kansas.
Librarian by day and author by night, she is also published in YA and contemporary mainstream romance under a different pen name.
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