"I can do that." She gave his chest a gentle nudge when he didn't move. "Go. No one's going to hurt me."
"Of course they won't-I'd never let them." Tao tapped her ass and, going against every protective instinct he had, walked away from her.
Riley was chucking her half-empty paper plate in the trash can when the scent of fresh citrus and pine bark swirled around her.
"Hello, Riley," rumbled a familiar voice.
She turned. And there was Sawyer, leaning against a tree, smiling. "Sawyer," she greeted him flatly.
"You look well." He tilted his head slightly as he studied her closely. "Tired, but well. Still have trouble sleeping?"
"Sometimes. How are you?"
"I'm good. Very good." His smile was warm, intimate. "It's been four years, Riley. I didn't think you'd stay away that long."
"I didn't think you'd ever even dream of touching Cynthia. People can surprise you that way."
His mouth quirked. "I guess they can." His attention was snagged by something over her shoulder, and his smile faded a little.
Tao's scent wrapped around her, drowning out that of the male raven, mere seconds before he pressed against her back and dangled an open bottle of Coke in front of her. "Here, baby."
"Thanks." She took a long drink, enjoying the cold and sparkling taste.
Sawyer pushed away from the tree and took a casual step forward. "Who's your friend, Riley?"
She quickly made the introductions, and she didn't miss the hard glint in Sawyer's eyes. Much like Tao, he didn't trust outsiders or like having them in his territory.
"It's always a pleasure to meet a friend of Riley's," said Sawyer with false politeness.
"Where's Cynthia?" Riley asked.
"She's around here somewhere," Sawyer replied vaguely.
Tao's wolf unsheathed his claws and took a swipe at the male. He didn't like the way the bastard looked at Riley. There was no desire there, but his gaze was intent. Knowing. Lingered on her too long. He got the feeling the raven was trying to goad him.
"We appreciate your pack watching over Riley." The message was clear: in Sawyer's opinion, she wasn't part of the Phoenix Pack.
"We take care of what's ours," Tao told him. His wolf liked it when Sawyer's mouth tightened.
"There you are," said a female who was fast approaching-the same female Tao had guessed was Cynthia. She stopped beside Sawyer, her smile fake and tight as she spoke to Riley. "It's quite a surprise to see you here."
"I'll bet," said Riley.
She turned that fake smile on Tao. "I'm Cynthia. And, if the gossip is to be believed, you're the Phoenix Pack's Head Enforcer."
"That's right," said Tao. His tone didn't invite further questioning. He could practically feel Cynthia's unease as she stood very still, clearly making a conscious effort to seem relaxed. She cast a worried look at Sawyer, whose eyes were fixed on Riley. She either suspected or knew that the male felt, at the very least, a hint of possessiveness where Riley was concerned.
"You've made this a perfect day for your uncles, Riley."
Smiling, Riley said, "I'm glad." Just in case the female said anything to tempt Riley into smashing the now-empty Coke bottle into her face, Riley slung it in the trash can.
"How long will you be staying?"
"A couple of days."
Disappointment clouded Cynthia's eyes. She offered Riley a weak smile. "It's a shame you can't stay a little longer."
Riley was surprised the female didn't choke on her words
. "I'm just here for the weekend."
"Well, I'll leave you to enjoy your evening." Cynthia turned to Sawyer. "Ruby's looking for you."
It was a few seconds before he actually met Cynthia's gaze and said, "She hasn't looked very far."
Cynthia gave an awkward laugh and looped her arm through his. "I think she's by the buffet table."
Sawyer looked at Riley. "It's good to have you home, even if it's only for a few days." Then he and Cynthia walked away.
Tao twirled Riley to face him and snaked his arms around her waist, settling one palm on her ass. "I think we can safely say he's still a little possessive of you." It made his wolf want to rip out Sawyer's throat. "Cynthia was well behaved."
"Maybe she's matured some."
"Maybe." Tao wasn't startled by the sound of a throat clearing behind him; he'd already scented her uncle. Tao glanced at him over his shoulder, brow raised.
"I was hoping I could have a dance with my girl before the party ends," said Max.
Tao's grip on her ass involuntarily tightened, but he reluctantly released her. Watching Max and Riley on the manmade dance floor, Tao could tell that they'd done this many times before. She laughed as Max spun her one way and then another. Much as he hated being surrounded by strangers, Tao was glad he'd brought Riley here to see her uncles.
"I noticed you've marked Riley," said Ethan, appearing at his side. "You must be a brave guy to take her on."
Tao's mouth twitched. "She does like to be a trial."
"That she does," Ethan agreed. "I saw you talking to Sawyer. He and Riley were together for a short while, but you don't need to worry about him. He's no threat. Riley's moved on."
"I know that, but does he?"
"That I don't know. Sawyer's a complicated creature. One thing he's never been good at is sharing. That's why he doesn't want a mate-he intends to be Beta and he has no wish to share the power that comes with the role. I think part of the reason he pursued Riley was that he knew she had no interest in power. Their relationship wasn't serious, but that suited both of them. Suited Sawyer a little too much, so he wasn't pleased when she ended it. Not pleased at all."
"What you're saying is that he doesn't care for Riley, but-"
"I didn't say that. He's known her all his life, after all. I think he cares for her as you would for a flock mate; her safety's important to him and he'd rather have her back here. But even if he doesn't still want her, he won't like seeing her with you. As I said, he doesn't like to share. If he can cause a rift between you two so that he can, at the very least, have her home, he will."
"If he has any sense, he won't try it," said Tao. Time would tell just how much sense Sawyer had.
It was another half hour or so before the party ended. The entire flock helped tidy the mess, so it didn't take long. After Riley said a final good night to her uncles and Lucy, she urged Tao in the direction of the parking lot so they could drive to their allocated guest cabin.
They were almost at the lot when they heard footsteps hurrying their way. Turning, they found Cynthia and Shirley striding toward them like women on a mission. Apparently they'd joined forces against Riley. Tao wondered if maybe one had egged on the other.
Glaring at Riley, Shirley began, "You and I . . ." She paused at Tao's growl and shot him a wary look. "We'd like to speak to Riley."