"So be smug all you like, but know that you're playing second fiddle to Taryn. It's her he wants as his mate."
Refusing to reveal any of her pain, Riley shrugged. "Can't say I blame him. Taryn's awesome." The crone jerked back with a frown. "What did you think I was going to do? Rant and rave and kick him to the curb? Oh, my dear, dear Gretchen, you'll have to do better than that."
Hearing a buzzer, Riley went straight to the washing machine and pulled open the door. The lavender smell of the detergent hit her face. She breathed it in, using it to calm herself and her raven. Ignoring Greta, she then hummed softly to herself as she began moving the wet laundry to the nearest dryer. Snarling at the dismissive act, the witch finally left. Only then did Riley let her shoulders slump. A wet shirt fell from her shaky fingers. It felt like the wind had been knocked right out of her.
Shock. Hurt. Humiliation. Disbelief. Each insidious emotion curdled in her stomach and made her chest tighten. She pressed down on her breastbone, trying to think through it all.
It was hard enough to hear that Tao had once wanted to imprint with someone. The bitch of the matter was that Riley knew that someone. It was a person she'd spent time with, laughed with, and gotten blind drunk with. And all that time, Taryn had known-hell, the whole pack probably knew-that Tao had once wanted her as his mate. It was humiliating that Riley hadn't known.
Did he still feel that way about Taryn? She didn't think so. Riley had seen them interact plenty of times, but never once had she sensed that he yearned for Taryn. But maybe she simply hadn't noticed it.
Or maybe she was just being paranoid because she was looking at the whole thing through jealous vision. She loathed that emotion, but it wouldn't fuck off. Had Tao ever kissed Taryn? Touched her the way he'd touched Riley? Somehow she doubted it. Trey surely would have otherwise killed him long ago. That only eased the jealousy a little, though.
Dammit, someone should have told her. Someone should have warned her so that Greta couldn't have blindsided her with it. And fuck, was Riley pissed with every wolf in the pack for not saying a word about it. But then, she thought, of course they hadn't told her. They'd known it might have made her feel awkward to cross the pack mate line with Tao, and they were too intent on bringing her and him together.
While she could understand their reasoning, that didn't make it okay. In fact, she felt a little betrayed by these people she'd slowly but surely started to trust. And she didn't know what to do about it.
Eating his BLT, Tao listened hard for approaching footsteps. It wasn't like Riley to be late for lunch, especially since she liked to settle the kids into their seats and fill their plates for them. His wolf didn't like it that she wasn't there; he missed her. Every time Tao caught a whiff of her scent on his skin or his clothes, it made both him and his wolf miss her that little bit more.
"I noticed the raven's not around," said Greta with a satisfied smile, an odd note to her voice that caught his wolf's attention. "I wonder why that could be."
Brow creased, Makenna paused with her hot dog halfway to her mouth. "I know she went to do her laundry. I haven't seen or heard from her since. She should be done by now."
Tao listened to Makenna's words, but his eyes were locked on Greta, on the sly curve of her mouth, the superior jut of the chin, and her air of exaggerated casualness. His wolf's hackles rose. "What did you do?"
She put a hand to her chest, eyes smiling. "I haven't done a thing,"
He leaned forward, aggression radiating from him. "What did you do?" A tense silence had fallen, and everyone's attention was on him and Greta
"I've known you all my life and I know that smile means you've done something to hurt someone and you're proud of it." Right then his instincts were screaming at him to get to Riley. "So I'll ask again, what did you do?"
Savannah crouched in her seat, hissing at Greta.
"Someone get hold of that child before she-" Greta broke off as Savannah hissed again. "See, vicious."
"Leave her the fuck alone," Tao clipped, shocking Greta into silence. His wolf surged to the surface, making his eyes flash wolf. The old woman swallowed hard.
"Greta," Trey growled, "answer his question now."
Tao stilled at the sound of footsteps, but he didn't look away from Greta.
She patted her hair. "The raven and I may have had a slight disagreement."
How very vague. "About what?"
Greta averted her eyes.
"About what?" he repeated.
Dark-red fruit, coconut milk, and black lace.
Tao looked up as Riley strolled in like she didn't have a care in the world. Then she took in the sight of Savannah snarling at Greta, and her eyes went hard.
"What's going on?" Riley stroked her hand down Savannah's hair. "Did she upset you, sweetheart?"
Head tilted, the little viper said, "I thought she'd upset you."
"Upset me?" Riley pursed her lips. "Well, it does upset me that she won't shave the downy hairs from her chinny chin chin, but that's pretty much it."
Savannah giggled and relaxed in her chair, and the rest of the table seemed to let out a collective breath. Tao remained tense. Riley might look fine, but she wasn't fooling him or his wolf-they knew her too well at this point.
As she slid onto the chair beside him, he said, "You're late." It wasn't a reprimand, just a statement of fact.
She shrugged. "I was talking with Ethan."
He sensed that that was the truth. He also sensed that she was leaving something out. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," said Riley, unprepared to discuss it here in front of everyone. She'd keep her pain to herself, thankyouverymuch. And she definitely wouldn't expose the kids to what should be a purely adult conversation, especially Kye-who'd probably feel a little mixed up if he knew his bodyguard had once wanted to mate with his mom.
Casting Greta a look of challenge, Riley scooped up some pasta and put it on her plate. Her raven flapped her wings at the old bitch. Honestly, there had been a brief moment when Riley had thought of staying in her room-she wasn't in the mood to spend time with a bunch of people she was a little pissed off with. But no way would she let Greta cause her to hide away in her room. Nuh-uh. And she was annoyed with herself for even considering it.
As Tao ate the rest of his BLT, he watched Riley closely. In between eating her pasta and chatting with Zac, she teased the kids and topped up their plates. She also seemed to be deliberately avoiding making eye contact with anyone else.
Knowing Greta, she'd most likely accused Riley of the same crime that Shirley had, just to hurt her. He sent the old woman a hard look. She didn't look so superior now. In fact, she was watching Riley with a mixture of confusion and . . . no, that couldn't be respect. If she'd thought that hurting Riley would make his little raven isolate herself, she was gravely underestimating her strength.
Draping his arm across Riley's back, Tao rested his hand in the crook of her neck and used his thumb to rub her nape. She stilled beneath his hand. It was a subtle rejection, but it was a rejection all the same. A growl built in his chest-a noise that came from both man and wolf. He spoke low in her ear. "What's wrong?"