“It can be. People let their personal shit get in the way. Marcus had the same trouble with Roni. I told him to just listen to his wolf, but he insisted on dwelling on what the Seer told him. Both he and Roni would have sensed the mating bond straightaway if they’d listened to their wolves.”

“My wolf didn’t like Riley at first.”

That took Trick by surprise. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. My wolf likes people to respect him. She isn’t impressed by authority and finds joy in testing my patience. He didn’t like that at all. He’s crazy about her now, but it took him a while to really warm up to her. So if we’re going by your theory that all we have to do is listen to our animals, Riley’s not my true mate at all, or my wolf would have adored her from minute one.”

Trick was quiet for a minute. “It doesn’t make sense that he didn’t like her in the beginning. I’m positive that female is your true mate.”

“Do you think you’ll so easily recognize your own true mate when he or she comes along?” Tao asked him. Trick was openly bisexual.

“I’ll know,” he stated, confident. “My wolf will know.”

“Have you seen what she’s done to me!”

The shriek had them both turning. And gawking.

“Oh good God,” muttered Trick, shoulders shaking.

Marching up the cliff steps, Greta planted herself in front of Tao, bird shit dripping off her head and shoulder. “Look what she did to me!”

“Technically it wasn’t Riley,” said Trick. “It was her raven.”

Ignoring that, Greta glowered at Tao. “You want to be with her? You want to be with someone who would do this and find it acceptable?”

A smile curved Tao’s mouth. “Yeah, I do.”

“Hopeless,” she clipped, stalking away. “Hopeless, the lot of you.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Two weeks later Tao and Riley were snuggled together on the plush sofa of the playroom, drinking coffee and eating a cookie she’d grabbed from the snack cart. The room was cute and spacious, with stuffed animals, books, and all kinds of toys. Forest-themed murals decorated the walls. Paper butterflies and birds dangled from the ceiling, which also featured glowing stars and planets.

The playroom was especially good for when the weather was bad. Earlier, Riley and Tao had spent an hour in their animal forms chasing and herding the kids around the woods. The children had been extremely disappointed when it started to rain and they had to be brought inside, but having the playroom to go to softened the blow.

Most of Tao’s attention was on the basketball game that was playing on the wall-mounted TV opposite the sofa, but Riley preferred watching the kids play. At that moment Savannah was trying to stop Kye from undressing a doll, while Lilah was having a one-sided conversation with Dexter, who was flicking through one of the plastic toy boxes.

“I was thinking we could take the kids out for the day tomorrow,” said Tao.

Riley frowned. “You sure that’s a good idea? I know things have been quiet, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

“We’re in constant contact with your uncles. They’re helping Hugh and Sage keep note of everyone’s whereabouts. The moment anyone in the flock can’t be accounted for, they’ll call us. So far everything’s been as quiet there as it has been here.”

“Which makes it look like I was in fact behind the shootings.”

“I don’t think that’s why the shooter’s keeping a low profile. They can’t act while everyone’s being so closely watched.” He nuzzled her. “I know you’re reluctant to take any chances, but they’ll lose their little minds if they’re cooped up too long.”

She sighed. “You’re right. It’s not good for them.” She really should have thought of that and was annoyed with herself for not having considered it. “I’ll call my uncles in the morning. If they say everyone in the flock can still be accounted for, we’ll take the kids out for the day. I don’t want them to feel suffocated and bored.”

“They’re not bored. They had fun this morning playing with our animals. But they’ll become bored if confined to their territory.”

“They did have fun, didn’t they? I like your wolf.”

Tao smiled. “He likes you.” That was an understatement, really. His wolf adored her. He’d be with her twenty-four/seven if it were possible. “He likes playing with your raven.”

“He’s much more patient than you are, so she doesn’t find him as much fun to torment, but she loves that he plays with her.” Riley took another bite of her half-eaten cookie. “Savannah’s warming to you.”

Yeah, he’d noticed. “I switched sides, in her eyes.” Tao rubbed her thigh. “You know, on an honest note, I think Greta actually likes the kids.”

Doubtful, Riley asked, “Then why does she give Savannah a hard time?”

“Most likely because Savannah stands up to her so often. Greta’s probably just trying to knock her down a peg or two.”

Well, that would be pointless. “Savannah’s fearless.”

“She gets that from you.”

Frowning at Tao for taking a big chunk out of her cookie, she said, “She was that way before I met her.”

“Not according to Makenna. She said that Savannah used to be very withdrawn and unsure. She didn’t trust people or form attachments to anyone other than Dexter. Makenna said both of them seemed drawn to you, like they somehow sensed you’re a natural protector.”

“Maybe they heard that ravens vigorously protect kids.”

“Or maybe they saw in you what we see—someone tough, strong, and resilient who’ll stand between them and danger.”

“You didn’t see that when we first met,” she contradicted.

“My judgment was clouded by how badly I deal with change and outsiders.”

Riley sighed, admitting, “I love them.”

His mouth curved. “I know you do.” If she’d thought she’d been fooling anybody about it, she was totally wrong. It was written all over her in neon colors.

Done with her cookie, she wiped the crumbs from her hands. “Do you think they know?”

“Hell yeah. They love you right back. You’re their hero.”

“Their hero?” she echoed.

“You’ve stood over them like a sentry. They know you’ll always protect them and keep them safe. Not because you swore it—kids sense bullshit. They know it because they see that you’re bone-deep loyal. They trust you.” He curled her hair behind her ear. “I trust you.”

She scowled. “Stop reducing me to mush.”

His mouth quirked. “Mush?”

“You do it every time you blurt out something nice.” She was a dominant female; she wasn’t supposed to be mush. But for Tao, someone unduly suspicious by nature, to say that he trusted her . . . that was no small thing. Her raven was rather smug about it.

“It’s only the truth.” He closed his eyes as she began sifting her fingers through his hair. He knew she was trying to distract him from talking about anything that made her “mush,” but it was seriously hard to care when her fingers were massaging his scalp.

Riley ran her finger along the scar beneath his ear. “I remember when you got that.” Shifters scarred only if a wound was very bad. Tao had almost died that night. Her lungs burned at the memory.

***

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