Mate? Tao stiffened. "It's not that serious between me and Riley."
Max smiled. "I said the same thing about Ethan when my mom asked about him."
Ethan chuckled at Max. "I told my mom I was just using you for sex."
"You were," said Max.
Tao raised his hands and gently stated, "I really don't think she's my true mate."
Max's smile widened. "I said that about Ethan too."
"If you want the truth," said Tao, "I was a shit to her in the beginning. If I'd had my way, she wouldn't have been allowed to step foot on my territory. Why is that funny?" Tao had expected her uncles to be pissed at him, but both were laughing.
Ethan took another drink of his water. "When I first met Max, I wanted to kill him. I didn't even know why. He just rubbed me the wrong way. Looking back on it, I think part of me sensed he was my true mate and felt threatened by it. Taking a mate, making that ultimate commitment, can be a scary thing. There's no going back from something like that. It can freak a person out."
Suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable, Tao rolled back one shoulder. "I know what you're getting at, but I don't think she's my true mate."
Max cocked his head. "You don't sound particularly bothered by that."
"I'm not. But things truly aren't serious between me and Riley. And trust me when I say that's a good thing for her." And for him too. For Tao, flings were safe. There were no expectations to "complete" someone, no dependency, no pressure to feel something he hadn't yet been able to feel for a female. It wasn't that he was incapable of loving someone. He'd just never been able to feel love for someone outside his family or pack.
Max shrugged. "All right, if you say so."
He did say so, but neither raven looked as if he believed him.
It was 3:40 a.m. when Riley woke up the next morning. Because it had taken her a while to fall asleep, she'd had three hours' rest in all. Not great, but she'd learned not to moan about what sleep she didn't get and just be thankful for what she did get.
Feeling ridiculously alert, she didn't bother closing her eyes and trying to fall back asleep. Tired though she was, it wouldn't happen, so she simply lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Getting out of the bed without waking Tao would require some finesse. He'd proven to be a light sleeper, and, well, he wouldn't like it when Riley tried to take her breast back.
Tao wasn't a "cuddler"-which she loved because she didn't like being smothered-but his hand would often end up splayed possessively over her breast, stomach, or ass while they slept. Her raven liked it.
Hell, her raven liked practically everything about him. In truth, she was becoming a little too attached to him for Riley's liking. If Tao knew just how territorial the avian felt about him, he'd probably shit his pants and run a mile.
He'd impressed both Riley and her raven yesterday by snapping her out of what her uncles called "her zone." One minute she'd been in that dark, emotionally sterile pit, struggling to feel anything but grief. The next she'd been absolutely outraged by the dominant hold on her throat, and the world had been a colorful place once again.
It was a world she'd paint red with the blood of the bastard who-
"What's wrong?" he rumbled.
"I'm fine." And a little turned on by how deep and gravelly his voice was when he was half-asleep. "Go back to sleep."
"Stop plotting and let your mind rest."
"You're a plotter. There's no way you aren't planning your revenge
." He kissed her shoulder. "Let it go for now and go back to sleep."
"It doesn't work like that."
"How long have you had insomnia?"
"As far back as I can remember."
"Is it hard to fall asleep or just hard to stay asleep?"
"Sometimes my mind shuts down pretty fast, sometimes it takes a while to drift off. But I always wake up after a few hours." She gave a nonchalant shrug. "I'm used to it."
"I don't know how you function with it. After I left my childhood pack I had . . . well, I wouldn't call it insomnia, but there was a month when I kept waking up in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep. By the end of the four weeks, my concentration was shot to shit, I looked like crap, and I was so damn edgy I bit everyone's head off."
"Why did you leave with Trey and the others when he was banished by his father?" Generally she didn't ask personal questions, but since Tao had no problem asking them of her, she figured he wouldn't mind.
"I left because I didn't agree with the decision. When you're a teenager, you think you're older and wiser than you truly are. To me it didn't feel like a big deal to leave. It felt like the most obvious thing to do; my loyalty was to Trey, and I wouldn't follow an Alpha I couldn't respect or trust. Trey's father was an evil fucker."
"Didn't your parents try to stop you from leaving?"
"No. They understand me; they knew that leaving with Trey was something I had to do and they respected that." Which he'd appreciated. "They later transferred to the pack that my brother mated into."
"You have siblings?"
"Just one. An older brother, Joaquin. He's mated, with a passel of kids. Unhappily mated, for the most part, however. I don't see him or my parents as often as I should, if I'm honest." Tao softened his voice as he asked, "Do you remember much about your parents?" She was quiet for so long that he thought she wouldn't answer.
"I remember some things," she finally said. Somehow it was easier to talk about them in the dark. "I remember my mom's laugh. She had one of those really contagious laughs that made you want to laugh with her. She used to take lots and lots of pictures of me, like she was collecting memories. My dad . . . he loved sketching and painting and sculpting. He would shut himself in the spare room for days while he worked. And sometimes he'd leave origami animals on my pillow." Her freshest memories were of him dying in a bed, refusing to talk to or even look at her, no matter what she did.
Sensing her mood begin to plummet, Tao said, "I once saw my dad in a dress, eating low-fat yogurt."
She blinked. "What?"
"It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I thought it couldn't possibly be a real memory. But I have this image in my head of me looking out my bedroom window and seeing him that way and thinking . . . Dad hates yogurt, and what's with the dress? I mentioned it to my mom once and she laughed so hard I was worried she'd pee herself. Apparently there was one New Year's Eve party when everyone had been drunk out of their minds, daring each other to do weird stuff."
Riley smiled. "Your parents sound like fun people."
"Ethan said my mom was a fun person. Social and positive and full of mischief. Everybody loved her. My dad was an artist and had a big personality. Very emotional. When he was happy, he was ecstatic. But when he was sad . . . when he was sad, you'd think Armageddon had come calling. That's what others tell me, anyway."