"I told you, nothing."
He nipped her ear at the lie and said quietly, "Our room, now."
"I'm trying to eat here." The problem for Riley was that every forkful tasted like rubber. Her emotions were too messed up, and her raven was still in a sour mood. But she wasn't sure she was ready to talk about what she'd learned, not sure she was ready to hear that just maybe there was some truth in Greta's claim that Taryn was his first choice. "Have another sandwich or something."
"Baby, you're hurting and I hate it. It's killing me. We're going to our room so you can tell me why and I can fix it." Cupping her elbow, he brought her to her feet. He knew she wanted to resist. He also knew she wouldn't cause a scene in front of the kids.
Neither of them said a word as they made their way through the tunnels. Once they were in their bedroom, he folded his arms. "What did Greta say to you? I know she upset you somehow. Tell me."
Riley sighed. "She brought up Wade. She said she wouldn't be surprised if Shirley's accusations were true. That's not something I wasn't expecting."
"What else? Don't play dumb, Riley. You tensed up when I touched you, like I've done something to hurt you. If I have, I want to know what it is."
"You haven't hurt me. Fine, okay, you have. I would just rather you had told me so that Greta couldn't have sucker punched me with it."
He mentally ran through the possibilities of what she could mean but came up blank. "Told you what?"
Riley folded her arms. "About the none-too-little matter of you asking Taryn to imprint with you."
He closed his eyes. "Fuck."
"I'm not naïve, I know you have a past and I accept that. I can accept this too, it's just . . . why didn't you tell me? You know what, we don't need to talk about it. It's your business. I would just rather have heard it from you, that's all."
He moved into her personal space. "You're mine, I'm yours, which means my business is your business. You want to hear about it, I'll tell you. But let me make it clear that Taryn is not an ex. If she had been, I would have mentioned that. But I never kissed her, never even touched her."
Admittedly, Riley did feel a little better on hearing that. "Okay."
"I did want to imprint with her back then. Leaving the pack would have been damn fucking hard to do, but it would have been harder if I hadn't. When I was a kid, my mother had to deal with one of my dad's ex-bed-buddies hanging around, causing trouble for her. It was hard for everyone. That's part of the reason I resisted you. I didn't want things to be awkward for you, me, your mate, or-if through some unlikely miracle I ever mated-mine."
Before she asked why he thought it would be an unlikely miracle, he was speaking again.
"Even then, I knew I wouldn't have been Taryn's first choice, but I wanted her anyway. It wasn't because I cared deeply for her, it was because she's strong and would never have needed me. I could have held myself back from her, and there would have been no pressure to 'complete' her the way true mates are supposed to complete each other."
Having been unprepared for that answer, she asked, "You fear the depth of commitment that comes with mating?"
"Two people completing each other doesn't always work so well. My brother's mate had these expectations of the perfect guy that he can never live up to, no matter what he does-how could anyone? She spends her days criticizing him, but that doesn't stop her from relying on him, needing him, and leaning on him until she's also weighing on him
And that was no doubt part of why he was so cynical about relationships, she thought. "Not all love is unequal and codependent."
"No, it's not. But the idea that I have a mate out there expecting me to be her fairy-tale prince scares the shit out of me. How could I ever complete anyone, Riley? I'm a total asshole. Abrasive, selfish, tactless. The list goes on."
"You're not an asshole, Tao. You can be an asshole when you feel like it, but you're not an asshole."
"Of course I am. My point is that I wanted her for all the wrong reasons. I realized that pretty quickly, and I stopped wanting her before she and Trey even had a mating bond. That's the God's honest truth." He cupped her throat with both hands. "I honestly wasn't keeping it a secret from you. I can understand that it's definitely not a small thing to you, but it feels small to me because it wasn't a key point in my life. It's so far in the past I never even think about it, so it didn't occur to me to tell you." He pulled her to him, nuzzling her neck. "I'm sorry, baby. That's the second time I've hurt you in the space of a week. It doesn't seem fair that I'm making you miserable while you make me happy."
"How do I make you happy?"
"You don't have to do anything to make me happy. It just happens when you're around."
Her mouth curled just a little. He hadn't said it to flatter her, he'd simply stated what he felt was a fact. The whole him-wanting-to-imprint-with-Taryn thing still stung, but she was less upset now that she knew he hadn't made a conscious decision not to tell her. Her raven was a little less tense, though she also remained wary. "You don't make me miserable."
Tao smoothed his hands down to her shoulders. "I'm going to repeat this because in your position it would play on my mind. I do not want Taryn. I care about her just as I do my other pack mates, but that's it. Nothing more. Nothing less. And I have no regrets at all that we didn't imprint. None whatsoever."
Now that some of the jealousy had slipped away, Riley could look at the whole thing more rationally. She could be sure that she'd never once seen him look at Taryn with longing. "Greta said I was playing second fiddle."
"Fuck Greta. She knows that's bullshit. You're not second to anyone. You come first to me. Understand?"
She nodded. "Okay."
"Good." He kissed her softly and stroked her hair, soothing and gentling, relieved she didn't tense again. His wolf, still a little anxious, rubbed up against her. "I need to have a good, long talk with Greta."
Riley shivered at the lethal note to his growl. It always made her tingly when he got all overprotective, but she'd never let him know that. "She's not worth it."
"She deliberately set out to hurt you."
"Hey, I'm a big girl, you know."
"But you're my girl. And I don't want anyone hurting my girl." He rubbed his nose against hers. "I especially don't want to be the reason she's hurt."
"I'm fine now, really."
He stroked the bite mark he'd left on her pulse. "I've never marked anyone before. Not even accidentally." He liked rough sex, and some people could get so carried away that they left a mark. But he never had.
"You marked me accidentally the first night we slept together," she pointed out. "Then again, you were wasted."
"I was wasted, but I didn't mark you by accident. I knew exactly what I was doing." Even totally hammered, he'd been fully aware that he was leaving his brand on her. It was something he'd wanted to do for a very long time.