Fierce Obsessions

Page 15

Getting a good look at the family photo on the cake, he said, "It's pretty."
"It's a picture of me and my uncles."
"You were a cute kid. What happened to you?"
She huffed at him. "I'd ram my elbow into your ribs if I wasn't worried I'd drop the cake."
"Your heartbeat is racing. Calm down, it'll be fine." Tao wouldn't allow anything less.
Hearing the cheer, she tensed. "Here goes nothing."
"Happy anniversary to you . . ."
Tao lit the candle and followed Riley as she walked through the trees, singing along.
"Happy anniversary to you . . ."
Entering the clearing, he saw a happy couple smiling beneath a huge congratulatory banner. Their eyes landed on Riley. And they gaped.
"Happy anniversary to Max and Ethan . . ."
As the others finally spotted Riley, the singing, laughing, and cheering stopped. Her stomach churned, but she ignored it. Lucy, the Alphas, and Hugh sang along with her, drawing out, "Happy anniversary to you." A little sheepishly, Riley then added, "Surprise!"
All that could be heard was the lanterns clinking and the streamers fluttering. Tao sensed Riley's anxiety and thought about stepping in, but then her uncles came forward. Eyes prickling with tears, the taller of the two blew out the candle, handed the cake to his mate, and wrapped his arms around Riley.
After a heartbeat of silence, people cheered and clapped. Many then came forward to greet her, taking their turns hugging her one at a time. Tao stood back and watched the reactions of those around him. They were all so focused on Riley that they barely noticed him.
Everyone seemed pleased to see her and touched by her uncles' joy . . . with the exception of two females. One was a middle-aged redhead who he guessed was Wade's mother; she was glaring at Riley with a mixture of pain and contempt. The other female looked a little like Lucy and, scowling, was digging her nails into the arm of a tall, dark male who was staring at Riley curiously. Tao assumed they were Cynthia and Sawyer.
He could tell which ravens had lost children in the shooting just by their expressions; they either looked at Riley with a sad glint in their eyes that said they were remembering their own deceased children, or they looked at her with remorse and an awkward smile.
Tao watched Ethan and Max Porter fuss over Riley, and it became infinitely clear that they worshipped the ground she walked on. They both would have her back there in a heartbeat if they thought it was best for her.
Riley suddenly turned to face Tao and grabbed his arm to pull him toward her. "Max, Ethan-this is Tao, the Phoenix Pack's Head Enforcer. Tao, these are my uncles, Ethan and Max."
Not particularly comfortable in social settings outside his pack, Tao simply said, "Riley speaks highly of you." There was nothing effeminate about either male. They were both tall and muscled and moved like they could handle themselves. With his stylish pants and shirt and his well-groomed appearance, Max looked like a predator in corporate clothing. Ethan, on the other hand, had a cowboy style with his checked shirt, jeans, and boots.
Max regarded Tao through eyes that twinkled with both curiosity and surprise. "Riley, sweetheart, you've been holding back a few things."
Ethan scrubbed a hand over his jaw, gaze narrowed in suspicion. "Head Enforcer, huh?" he said gruffly. "You brought my girl here?"
"I did."
"Then you're welcome." Ethan held out his hand, and Tao shook it.
Riley cleared her throat and clipped, "Um, Riley brought herself."
Ethan gave her a mock frown . "Don't sass me."
"But I'm so good at it." Taking the card and gift from Tao, she held them out. "We brought you a little something."
Max cradled her face. "Stupid girl, you're our gift. Lucy, could you please put these on the table with the others?" Lucy obligingly added the box and card to the stack of neatly wrapped presents and envelopes on a nearby table.
Riley gestured to the pair sidling up to her uncles. "Tao, this is Sage and Ruby, the Exodus Flock Alphas. Tao's the Phoenix Pack's Head Enforcer," she told them.
Ruby gave Riley a quick hug and, much like Max, regarded Tao with curiosity as she said, "Aren't you a pretty one?"
Sage shot his mate a mock glare. "I hope you're not thinking of leaving me for a younger model." Turning to Riley, he smiled. "I'm pleased you made it. It's been too long since you've been here, and don't think I'm not upset with you for not coming sooner. But since I'm in such a good mood, I'll skip the lecture on the evils of making us wait so long to see you again." His eyes slid to Tao. "I've heard of your pack. As Ethan said, if you brought Riley to us, you are welcome here-wolf or not," he added with a smile.
Respecting that the Alpha male didn't engage in any dumb posturing to make his dominance clear, Tao nodded. "It's good to meet you." The pair were old enough to be Riley's grandparents, yet they radiated strength and the same heavy dominance typical of born alphas.
"Now that the introductions are done," said Riley, "I'd like to get some food."
"You both need to eat. Come." Max led Riley and Tao to the buffet table, where bowls and platters of finger foods were spread out, including chicken, chips, crackers, and cake. They each helped themselves to a plate, and then Ethan and Max led them around the flock, introducing Tao. He always remained within touching distance of Riley, standing either at her side or at her back, protective and possessive.
When Ethan and Max finally left her side, Tao drew her against him, careful not to crush her plate between them. "I've noticed that neither Cynthia, Sawyer, nor Wade's mother have come forward to greet you."
Riley had occasionally caught wisps of Shirley's scent, so she knew she was close. "I didn't really expect them to. Shirley-that's Wade's mom-was glaring at me earlier."
"It's probably only a matter of time before she approaches you."
Riley found it kind of hard to concentrate on his words while he was whispering in her ear, making the hairs on her neck rise. "Disappear for a few minutes."
Tao's brows snapped together. "Excuse me?"
"Give her the chance to get her crap off her chest so we can get it over with. I'm quite safe, Tao, I'm surrounded by people."
He knew that, but walking away from her still went against his protective instincts. His wolf was tense, not liking that he was surrounded by strangers. The knowledge that a male was nearby who'd once touched their female . . . yeah, his wolf wasn't coping too well with that.
Riley's nails dug into his chest. "I'm a big girl, Tao."
"That doesn't mean I like leaving you alone, especially when I'm around a bunch of people I don't know." It was making him antsy.
"I'll be fine without you for just a few minutes. Look, it's better if I speak to Shirley now. The longer she stews, the more likely it is that she'll make a scene."
Tao sighed. "I'll go get us both another Coke." They had both chosen not to drink alcohol, wanting to be fully alert in the event of any problems. "I need you to stay here. Can you do that?"

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