"You were worried," he sensed.
"Yeah, I was worried. Have you ever been that badly injured before?"
"I've had plenty of broken bones, even had some internal bleeding, but I've never been that close to death before."
"When Wade came toward me with that gun, I thought I was going to die. My life didn't flash before my eyes, but it made me realize how much I wanted to live, who I'd miss and stuff."
Tao linked his fingers with hers. "I thought of you. Seriously. I was lying there for a good few minutes before someone noticed me. I didn't have the strength to call out to anyone. I knew I was dying; I could feel it happening. I literally thought, 'This is it. This is the end. Everything is over.' And I looked at my life and all the things I never did. And then you popped into my head. I wondered if you'd be okay, if you'd run or if you'd stay with the pack. I didn't like the idea that you'd only ever remember me as the guy who was an asshole to you."
"You're reducing me to mush again."
He chuckled. "I made the decision there and then to act on how much I wanted you if I lived through it, but I knew it wouldn't be that simple. I knew I couldn't let you see how much I wanted you or even that I liked you. I had to seem like I was no threat."
"You tricked me." And she still rather admired the deviousness of his plan.
"I did what I had to do to get what I wanted. And now I have it." He kissed her, flicking her tongue with his, coaxing her to play.
"Kissy, kissy, kissy."
Tao pulled back to scowl at Kye, who was now making kissing noises that Lilah tried to replicate.
Savannah's upper lip was curled as she stared at Riley and Tao. "Yuck."
Dexter had his little nose scrunched up. He grabbed Riley's leg, holding Tao's eyes with a gaze that gleamed with both possessiveness and challenge.
Tao ruffled his hair. "I don't want to take Riley from you and Savannah, little man. I just want you to share her with me. Can you do that?"
After a long moment, Dexter nodded. Savannah, however, eyed Tao closely for a little while.
Eventually the little viper nodded. "But I'll still bite your nose off if you upset her."
Tao stifled a smile. "Fair enough." Glancing at the clock, he said, "I have to go now. It's my turn to guard the southern border for a while so that Trick can have a break. You guys be good for Riley." He gave her one last kiss before disappearing.
Riley inhaled deeply. "Right . . . who wants to make cookies?"
Four hands shot up in the air.
"Let's get this room tidy first."
Makenna, Grace, and Lydia helped them bake the cookies. Of course, all four kids made an absolute mess of themselves. Later on Grace and Lydia took them to be washed and changed while Riley and Makenna cleaned the kitchen.
Riley was cleaning the flour and cookie dough from the kitchen countertop when Dante strolled in with an odd expression on his face. Ryan, Zac, Greta, and the Alphas all looked up from the table.
The Beta's eyes danced from Riley to Taryn as he said, "Tao's parents just drove through the fence."
"Shit." Taryn pushed away from the dining table and exchanged a worried look with her mate. "Where's Tao?"
"On patrol in his wolf form," replied Dante. "I've left a message on his cell to tell him they're here. Hopefully he shifts soon and sees the message."
Zac frowned. "Why is it bad that they're here? I thought you guys liked them." It was clear by the teenager's voice that he kind of liked them too. The Alphas exchanged another odd look.
Dumping the rag on the countertop, Riley asked, "Am I missing something?" Because they seemed seriously worried
. Makenna shrugged, clueless.
Taryn turned to Riley, scratching her head. "Tao's parents are great. Lennon is a sweet guy and Avery is a little on the hippie side. Tao gets his directness from her, so she's not one to hold back if something bothers her." It sounded like a warning of some sort.
Riley tried to read between the lines but failed to understand where the Alpha was going with this. "What are you trying to tell me?"
Trey moved to his mate's side. "One of the reasons I have a lot of respect for the couple is that they stood strong against a number of people who tried to come between them. When Avery mated Lennon and moved to his pack, it was hard for her. A few of the females who'd had a fling with Lennon acted like serious bitches to Avery, one in particular. They recruited others in the pack to band against her."
Riley nodded. "Tao told me a little about it."
Draping an arm over Taryn's shoulders, Trey continued. "I always suspected that the main reason Tao held back from you was that he was taking his dad's advice to never have a fling with someone from his pack. Lennon gave Dante and me that same advice. I didn't listen, and Taryn paid that price before the bitch in question moved to another pack."
"You think Lennon will be pissed at Tao for not taking his advice," Riley guessed.
"No, Lennon's a pretty understanding guy and he accepts that Tao will always go his own way," replied Trey. "But Avery will be upset that her son did something that could later hurt him and his mate in a big way."
"Ah." Riley rubbed at her nape. "Look, I won't lie and say I won't find it hard when Tao takes a mate, but I wouldn't try to hurt him."
"We know you wouldn't," Taryn assured her. "Honestly, I'm not sure you have to worry about Tao leaving you for someone else anyway, but that's not a conversation we can have right now. I'm just warning you that Avery might be difficult."
"I could just sit with the kids until his parents are gone," Riley offered.
"That won't help," said Makenna. "She'll smell you on Tao as soon as he arrives, so she'll flip her lid whether you're in the room or not."
"And no one has the right to make you hide in your own home," stated Dante.
He was right, and everything inside Riley balked at hiding anyway. Her raven would hate it. "I'll finish cleaning while we wait for them." The wolves all pitched in. By the time an unfamiliar laugh echoed throughout the tunnels, the kitchen fairly sparkled.
Trick entered first, so he'd obviously accompanied the mated pair into the mountain. The male who followed him inside was much darker than Tao, but they had the same solid build and rough angles to their faces. It was Lennon's confident walk and the way his wandering gaze took in everything that really made her think of Tao, though.
The female at Lennon's side shared Tao's shade of hair and gold eyes, but she had a warm and welcoming way about her that was very unlike her son. As Lennon talked with Trey, Avery used Zac's shoulder as a shelf for her elbow while she teased and laughed with the teenager. Then, after giving Zac a gentle pinch on the cheek, she began to make her way around the room, smiling and chatting with each of the wolves. Her walk was slow and easy. She kind of . . . floated around the room, her long gypsy skirt swirling around her legs.
Finally she reached Riley. Tilting her head, she smiled. "I don't believe we've met."
Hoping she wouldn't end up going toe-to-toe with the woman, Riley returned her smile. "I'm Riley."