She found herself actually blushing. "Well, I like it when you make me laugh."
"I had a dream last night."
"Oh? Do tell."
He chuckled. "Not that kind of dream. We were in the little clearing near the river. I was lying on my back on the grass. You were sort of snuggled against my side with your head on my chest and your hair all spread out. That's it. That's really as much as I can remember. But it was just so . . . peaceful. We haven't had much peace lately. I was disappointed when I woke up and realized it was a dream."
"Maybe we can reenact it when all this crap is over."
He smiled. "Yeah. We'll do that." He kissed her again. Harder this time. Deeper. And said what he'd wanted to say all day. "I want to claim you, Riley."
Her heart slammed against her ribs and began racing a mile a minute. "What?"
"You heard me."
She licked her lips. "If this is to do with the stuff your mom said-"
"It's nothing to do with her. This is what I want." Tao hadn't thought she'd be so surprised. "What did you think would happen, Riley? I told you, we have something. It's good and it's real and it makes me fucking happy. I want to keep it."
She dug the heels of her palms into her eyes. "I should have known you'd do this."
She looked up. "Move so fast."
"This isn't moving fast, it's taking action. I'm not a person who holds back when I want something-you know that. I don't see the point in committing to someone unless it's on every level."
"Which is great, but don't you want to be one hundred percent sure that I'm someone you could care for enough to imprint with one day?"
He framed her face with his hands. "Riley, I'm sick in love with you. I don't know when it happened or if it was some gradual thing, but it's how I feel." He'd cared about people before, but what he felt for her made those feelings seem like a cheap imitation of what it meant to care for someone. "I love that you're smart and strong and fearless. I love that you're a sly little fighter and you don't sweat the small stuff. I love that you get me, accept me, and let my shit roll right over your head and just get on with your day."
Riley's eyes stung. He'd turned her to mush again. "You think that if we give in to this, a mating bond will snap into place, don't you?"
"I don't know. Now ask me if I care. Ask me."
She swallowed. "Do you care?"
"No. The whole true mate thing is overrated. Your old flock has it right. Fate doesn't always have to include a person's true mate. If you tell me you'd prefer to search for your true mate, I'll accept that. Okay, that was a lie, but it sounded good. Seriously, Riley, it's pointless to go through life searching for that 'click' when it's easy enough to walk right past your mate and not even recognize them for who they are-or who they should be-to you."
"It's not as simple as you make it sound." She wasn't concerned that he wasn't her true mate. Plenty of the couples in her flock had imprinted, including her own parents, so it was pretty much the norm to her. What concerned her was that . . . "If we claimed each other and it all messed up, we'd have to see each other every day. I'd have to watch you with another-"
"Never gonna happen, Riley. I don't want anybody else. Only you. I know I could never be happy with anyone else-not now that I've had you." He was utterly sure of that. "I want you to be just as happy. No, that's not right. I want to make you happy. Do I, Riley? Tell me."
"Yes. You make me feel happy and . . . safe." She glowered at him. "I don't need someone to make me feel safe."
. "Of course you don't, baby. But I'm glad that I do."
"What if a mating bond doesn't snap into place? I know you think it will, but what if it doesn't?"
"Hear me when I say this: It doesn't matter to me if you're the other half of my soul or not. You're in my soul. I don't know how you got there, I really don't, but you are."
Well, it wasn't just himself he needed to worry about. "And your wolf?"
"My wolf is crazy about you. He wants to mark and claim you just as much as I do." Tao stroked his thumb along her cheekbone. "How about your raven?"
"She already thinks of you as hers," said Riley. "She has for a while."
Relieved, Tao said, "So I want it, my wolf wants it, your raven wants it. Do you?" He held his breath, unsure what he'd do if she said no.
"I wouldn't be an easy mate, Tao. And I kind of come as a package deal."
He smiled. "It's about time you admitted those kids are yours. You think that would put me off? I adore the way you love those kids to distraction. I love how you stand guard over them." He wasn't at all surprised by the fear in her eyes. Her uncles had warned him that she found it hard to believe she could hold someone to her. It was only natural that she'd worry. "Look, this isn't something we have to do right now. I'll give you time to think about it."
She looked at him dubiously. Since when did he possess patience? "You will?"
"I'll give you until tomorrow night to think on it. That's as much time as I can give you without losing my mind. Then we talk it all out and I'll claim you."
"You're so certain I'll agree?"
He smiled. "Ah, baby, do you really think I'll ever settle for anything less than what I want? What I want most is you. And I'll get it."
Watching the miniature pirate ship seesawing back and forth, Taryn shook her head. "I don't know how they could go on that thing after an ice cream and not spew up."
Riley smiled. "It's moving pretty slow." Still the young riders screamed, cheered, and laughed. Kye even daringly had his hands up.
Taryn gestured at a small ball pit. "Lilah would have liked that. Shame she wasn't well."
Riley had almost canceled the day trip, feeling shitty that Lilah would miss out, but Grace had insisted that it was best if the other kids weren't around, or Lilah would never take a nap. Shifter children tended to recover quickly and could often sleep off bouts of nausea. Still, Riley had hesitated. The Alphas, however, had practically ordered them to go and had even come along. They'd been at the amusement park for hours and the kids had ridden everything from the carousel to the bumper boats. They should be tired and bloated after all the walking and junk food, but they were still bundles of energy.
"Look!" Dexter, who was currently taking a break to eat, threw one of his fries on the ground and laughed when a bird swooped down and grabbed it.
Riley chuckled. "Don't forget to feed yourself." Keeping a close watch on the cub, she spoke to Tao, who had his arm curled possessively around her. "They're loving it, aren't they?"
Tao tucked her hair behind her ear. "They are."
When she'd woken up that morning, she'd expected to be dealing with a very pushy and impatient Tao. Instead he'd been calm and casual. He hadn't once bugged her to agree to mate with him. Hadn't once even mentioned their conversation of the previous night. She could almost think he'd forgotten it . . . except he cast her the occasional look of challenge, a dare to reach for what they both knew she wanted. Riley blushed every time.