His head snapped up at the knock on the door. It was a knock so light that it could only be from one of the kids.
“I’ll get it.” Riley nipped his lip hard when he didn’t release her. With a playful growl, he stepped back so she could open the door. She wasn’t in the least bit surprised to find Savannah standing there. “Hey, sweetheart.”
The little viper walked in, looking at Riley carefully, as if checking that Tao hadn’t hurt her when he dragged her to the room. “Can I bite the mean old lady now?”
Riley chuckled. It was so tempting to say yes. “I’m afraid not. Is Dexter done with his lunch?” Savannah nodded. “Then go ask him and the others if they want to play outside for a while.”
The little girl gave her a beaming smile. “Okay!” She started to leave, but then looked at Tao a little oddly. With her hand, she urged him to crouch down.
Tao smiled. It seemed that by defending her and Riley against Greta, he’d won a little of Savannah’s trust. Progress. He squatted.
“Come closer,” she whispered.
He shuffled a little closer and, equally quiet, asked, “What?”
She smiled. “If you hurt my Riley, I will bite your nose off and let Dexter eat it.”
Okay, so he hadn’t exactly won her trust yet. “Good to know.”
She happily skipped away and it was just a little bit freaky.
Frowning, Riley asked, “What did she say?”
Standing, he replied, “Apparently, if I hurt you, I’ll lose my nose.”
Eyes dancing, Riley gasped. “No!”
“She’ll also let Dexter eat it.”
Riley snorted. “Knowing that kid, he’d at the very least carry it around in his pocket.”
Tao was thinking the same thing.
She gave him a quick kiss. “Gotta go.”
He grabbed her hand to stop her leaving. “It shouldn’t hurt when I watch you leave the room, should it?” He didn’t like being away from her. Not one little bit. Her smile hit him in the gut.
“Dude, you say some pretty nice stuff sometimes.”
A grin tugged at his mouth. “I want another kiss.”
Rolling her eyes, she gave him another. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Stay near the base of the mountain,” he warned. There had been no signs of anyone lingering near the perimeter, but Tao wasn’t taking any chances. Not with her safety.
“Like I needed the reminder.”
He watched her leave the room and then pulled out his cell and dialed a familiar number. “Taryn, there’s something you should know.”
Riley lounged in one of the patio chairs as Kye chased the other three kids around a weathered birch tree. Their laughs and shrieks almost drowned out the sounds of birds calling, insects humming, and squirrels chattering. Her raven, who was still edgy, wanted to shift and play with them. Riley reassured her that they would soon. For now she’d simply watch over the children . . . one of whom had just scrambled up a tree as expertly as any viper shifter.
Kye scowled at said viper. “Savannah, down!”
Hanging upside down from the tree branch, Savannah threw an acorn at him instead.
Enjoying the heat prickling her skin, Riley sank deeper into the chair. The comforting scents of pine, wildflowers, sun-warmed earth, and sweet cedar helped soothe her raven’s nerves. The avian still hadn’t completely lost her anger. It wasn’t Tao she was mad with, it was Greta. The old dragon had deliberately tried to hurt her. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was the only time that Greta’s words had truly had an impact. The fact that Greta had managed to hurt her annoyed the raven almost as much as what Greta had said.
Hearing footsteps rustling the grass, Riley turned to see Taryn, Jaime, Roni, and Makenna come walking out of the trees and over to the patio table.
With a sheepish smile, Taryn asked, “Can we talk?”
“Sure,” Riley replied. “I’m guessing Tao told you.”
“He was about to, but Greta had already admitted what she’d said by then. I’m mad at her, but I’m mad at me too for not considering that she’d do that.”
“I can imagine how pissed you must be at us all for not mentioning it,” said Jaime. “Rightfully pissed. But please don’t be upset with Makenna—she didn’t even know.”
Roni gestured to herself and Jaime. “We weren’t part of the pack when all that stuff happened, but we knew a little about it. We should have told you.”
“Yes, we should have,” Taryn agreed. “I didn’t say anything because it sounds like a big deal, doesn’t it? It sounds like there must have been some great unrequited love, but it was never like that. Ask any of the guys or even Grace, Lydia, and Hope—they’ll all tell you the same thing. Tao doesn’t and has never loved me the way a guy loves his mate. I wanted you to see that for yourself before I told you about the imprinting thing. I should have known Greta would get there first, the bitch. She actually seems a little ashamed of herself.”
Makenna tipped her chin toward the lake. “She’s over there, sulking.”
Riley almost laughed. “Sulking?”
Taryn nodded. “Tao won’t talk to her. She’s devastated.”
“He won’t talk to her?” Riley echoed.
“Not since ripping her a new asshole a few minutes ago,” said Roni. “She hurt you. That’s not acceptable to him. It’s not acceptable to any of us.”
Jaime joined her hands, as if in prayer. “So, can you forgive us all for being too busy at matchmaking to not consider that some old dragon would use the past to dig her venomous claws into you?”
Honestly, Riley had already forgiven them. She could see why they’d kept it from her, and she had to admit that she might have done the same thing in their shoes. All that really mattered to her was that Greta was wrong, that it was Riley Tao wanted, no one else. Still, she pretended to consider it. “I guess so.” Smiling at their relieved expressions, she stood. “I don’t suppose you’d all mind watching over the kids for a minute, would you? I need to let my raven out.”
Standing at the mouth of the cave, Tao watched Riley and the other females talk. He wasn’t checking on her because he’d suspected she’d snub them or refuse to accept their apologies—he knew Riley was a better person than that. But he’d just wanted to watch her face as Taryn spoke with her, wanted to be sure she fully believed what she heard. It was important to Tao that she didn’t have any doubts about him or whom he wanted.
Trick sidled up to him, his gaze on the females. “Looks like blood won’t be shed.”
“I already explained everything to Riley,” Tao told him. “She knows I don’t want Taryn and that no one meant to hurt her.”
“I hope you’re not planning to ask Riley to imprint.”
Tao scowled, muscles bunching tight. “Why?”
“Because you’ll later find it embarrassing when you realize she’s actually your true mate.”
Tao exhaled heavily. “Trick—”
“Riley is your true mate, Tao. Do us all a favor and just accept it.” Exasperated, Trick shook his head. “I’ve no idea how you can’t see it.”
“Judging by the number of couples I’ve seen mate over the years, recognizing your true mate isn’t as simple as you seem to think it is.”
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