Love Me StillMaya Banks
Their father’s familiar scent drifted to Cael and Riyu through the mountain pine. The two wolves raised their heads, sniffing the wind. The fur on their backs prickled and stood on end. Danger.
Simultaneously, they shifted to their human form. More of their pack shifted around them as they forged through the trees in the direction of Magnus’ scent. Nude forms became clothed, a barrier to the cold and snow. Cael and Riyu conjured buckskins, boots, a shirt and a heavy fur.
Their worry was not only for their father but for their mate, Heather. She had gone with him this day along with Niko to the small mountain town below.
They sniffed again but couldn’t detect the scent of Heather or Niko. Only their father. And his blood.
They put on a burst of speed, bounding into the clearing where their father struggled through the snow in his human form.
“Father!” Riyu cried out.
Cael and Riyu rushed to where the older man collapsed, blood smearing his face and chest. His wounds were ragged, and the flesh lay open in several places.
The two brothers looked at each other, fear churning in their gut. Where was Heather? Where was their mate?
“My sons,” Magnus said, his voice low and weak.
“What happened, Father?” Cael demanded. “Where are Heather and Niko?”
Behind them, the rest of the pack gathered. Silent and worried. A high-pitched scream shattered the calm. Someone must have summoned their mother.
She shoved by them and gathered their father in her arms, rocking back and forth as tears streamed down her face. Magnus struggled against her, looking beyond her to his sons.
They surged forward, their minds consumed with worry and fear that they had lost their mate as it appeared they would lose their father. His wounds were severe. They were mortal.
“You must tell us where to find her, Father,” Riyu pleaded. “Tell us what happened. Who did this?”
“S-she betrayed us,” Magnus said, his voice heavy with pain and sorrow.
Cael reared back. “What? What are you saying?” He moved closer to his father, gently pushing his mother away. “Father, Heather is our mate. She would never betray us.”
Magnus coughed, blood bubbling from his mouth. “She did this. I think Niko is dead as well. We were ambushed. I was taken. I saw her at the clearing where they held me and Niko. I saw her hurting him as the others beat me. I heard her swear vengeance on the pack.”
“No,” Riyu denied, shaking his head. “She wouldn’t. She loves us. Accepts what we are. She would not lead hunters to us.”
Magnus’ clear blue eyes, mirrors of his son’s, opened wide and stared at the two brothers. “Look into my sight. See what I saw.”
Cael and Riyu thrust into their father’s mind. It was a wild, swirling vortex. Blurred images. Painful ones. They heard Heather laughing. Saw her dance in and out of Magnus’ vision, a bitter smile on her beautiful face. You will die. She came closer, stepping in front of the men who were beating their father. They will kill you. Determination was etched in her features as she looked into their father’s face. More images. Heather in the embrace of one of the hunters.
Riyu and Cael fell back, their hearts pounding, grief swelling in their chests. Betrayal, sharp and agonizing, sliced through Cael’s body. God, no! How could she? Their father. A man who had adopted her as his own daughter when Cael and Riyu had taken her as mate. And now she had killed him. And one of their pack brethren.
“I’m sorry,” Magnus whispered. More blood ran from his mouth in a fine stream. “I loved her, too. Like…like a daughter to me.”
A tear rolled down the older man’s cheek and Cael and Riyu’s mother wrapped her arms around him, sobbing her grief into his chest.
As Magnus breathed his last, he slowly transformed into the beautiful, black wolf he was. Around them, the pack transformed and began howling their grief to the skies above.
A tear caught in Cael’s eye but refused to fall. His breath snagged in his chest and remained there frozen. His father dead. Betrayed by Cael’s mate. His mate. The human he’d brought into the pack. This was all his fault.
Beside him, Riyu’s shoulders shook in silent mourning. Cael knew he not only mourned their father, but the loss of their mate. Traitorous bitch.
The wind shifted and Cael stiffened. Another scent, one all too familiar, one imprinted forever in his heart and mind, wafted through his nostrils.
The wolves stopped their howling and growled menacingly. They’d smelled her too. The traitor was returning to the pack.
“Hush now, little one,” Niko soothed as Heather whimpered in pain. “We’re but a hundred yards from the pack. You’re going to be fine now.”
His arms tightened around her as he gently set her down on the ground. Her feet hit the snow and she stumbled a bit as she sought to steady herself. Her right leg refused to support her weight and buckled beneath her.
“Where are you going?” she whispered. “Why aren’t you coming?”
He put a finger to her lips and tenderly brushed his other hand over her bruised cheek. “Your mates will care for you. That will be their top priority. I’m going after the hunters. Justice must be served for their crimes against our pack. I’ll return when I’ve done my task.”
“I don’t know if I can make it,” she said. Her strength was nearly gone. She was so weak.
“You are the strongest woman I know,” Niko said, his voice warm and full of admiration.
He bent to kiss her on the forehead and soothed his hands over her battered body. “Go now. Your mates await. Thank you, little human, for saving me and Magnus. You sacrificed far too much. I will never forget this.”
He transformed to wolf and bounded away, leaving her swaying in the snowdrift. She shivered as the snow crept up to her knees. Cael and Riyu would come for her. They would have smelled her by now.
Tears slid down her cheeks. Would they want her still? The hunters touch lay heavy on her skin. She felt used and dirty. Her flesh crawled as though their hands still pawed at her.
She lifted a trembling hand to her cheek, wincing when her fingers brushed across her swollen eye. She put one foot out, determined to meet her mates with dignity and pride.
She struggled through the snow. She could hear howling in the distance. A slow, mournful sound. Her blood froze in panic. Had Magnus not returned? Or were his injuries more severe than she and Niko had thought?
She quickened her pace, ignoring the pain rocketing through her body. She must reach her mates. They would care for her. Only them. They loved her. They would be furious at what had happened to her, but they’d never turn away from her.
Finally she broke into a clearing. The trees fell away and she stared across the snow-covered slope to see Cael and Riyu kneeling on the ground around their mother and a black wolf. Magnus.
Fear and grief swelled in her throat until she could barely breathe. She hurried forward, pushing herself even as her body screamed in protest. Her mates turned to look at her.
She stopped a few feet away, recoiling at the hatred and grief in their eyes. There was no welcome here. No rush to her aid, no caring in their expressions.
They stood, her two lovers, the men she loved more than life itself. She started forward again, but the cold look in Cael’s eyes stopped her once more.
“You have some nerve coming here,” he hissed. “Were you not satisfied until you saw the results of your betrayal?” He turned, sweeping a hand in the direction of the fallen wolf. “Take a good, hard look, Heather. See what you’ve done here.”
“But I didn’t…” she protested, throwing her hand out in a defensive gesture. The movement cost her. She swayed and sank to her knees, the cold moisture of
the snow seeping into her torn clothing.
What did Cael mean? Why did he speak with such anger? Anger never before directed at her.
“You lie,” Riyu spat. “You are damned by our father’s own words and his sight. We saw and heard what you did.”
“You were our mate,” Cael said, agony creeping into his voice. “We loved you as no other. Put your needs above our own. Above our pack. And you betrayed us. How could you? Does it satisfy you to see one of the greatest wolfs in our bloodline lying on the ground lifeless? Does it make you feel good to know that our mother grieves for a mate she has run side by side with for a century?”
“Cael, no!” she burst out. “Please, you must listen to me. I love you. I would never betray you.” She glanced at Riyu who stood, shoulders heaving with anger and emotion. “I love you,” she said softly. “Why have you turned against me? Why do you believe I could do something so horrible?”
Lorna stood, her eyes blazing. She strode over to where Heather struggled to stand again. She raised her hand and slapped Heather across her bruised cheek. The crack rang out through the air.
“Don’t you ever speak of love to me,” her mates’ mother screamed. “You have betrayed us all. You are as dead to us as Magnus is.”
Heather’s head snapped back, and she fell backward into the snow. The sky spun crazily above her, and she knew without a doubt, the world had gone mad. Maybe she had died back there. Maybe she hadn’t survived the brutal attack on her.
“Niko,” she whispered. She needed Niko. He knew. He would tell them what had happened.
“You dare speak the name of the noble warrior you murdered,” Lorna hissed. “You aren’t fit to speak his name.”
Heather looked up to see her mates flank their mother. Cael slid an arm around her thin shoulders.
“Come away, Mother,” he said in a low voice.
“Don’t go!” Heather cried.
Only Riyu turned to look at her again. His eyes brimmed with pain and sorrow.
“We loved you, Heather. We would have done anything for you. We would have loved and cared for you forever. And you threw it all away for what? Why do you hate us so much? My father took you in as one of his own. He loved you like a daughter. You repaid him with treachery.”
She watched as he turned his back on her and walked away. In the distance, her mates shifted to wolves. They hovered around Magnus’ body before gripping his fur in their mouths to drag him away.
They were leaving her. Panic swelled and exploded inside her. She was badly hurt. She would die here without their aid. More than that, she’d die without their love.
“Don’t go,” she croaked as tears flooded her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “I love you. I need you,” she whispered.
Heather awoke and tugged the heavy furs closer around her body. Then she waited. Hoping this would be a day she could wake without the overwhelming deluge of pain.
Grief soared through her, leaving her weak and limp against the makeshift bed. Her body still hadn’t healed from the attack three weeks ago, but her soul had suffered the most damage. Irreparable damage.
A thump alerted her to John Quincy’s presence in the old cabin. The front door opened, and a rush of cold air blew in before he quickly slammed it shut again.
She looked up from her pallet by the fireplace to see him hauling a small fir tree across the floor.
“Good morning, girl. You feeling better today?” the older man asked.
She nodded just as she did every morning, and he harumphed as he did every morning when he saw the lie in her eyes.
“What’s that?” she asked as she struggled against the pain to sit up.
He quirked a bushy eyebrow at her. “What does it look like, a grizzly bear?”
She tried to smile but gave up. Smiling took too much effort.
He sighed. “It’s a Christmas tree, girl. Thought it might cheer you up. I have a few baubles we can hang on it to make it pretty. We can even string some popping corn if you promise not to eat it all.”
She did smile then. She loved Christmas. Had told him so during one of their long conversations on the cold nights in front of the fire.
“There, that’s better,” he said approvingly. “Smiling ain’t so bad, now is it?”
She looked down, wondering for the hundredth time what she would have done if the old trapper hadn’t come across her lying in the snow. Lying there wishing for death to come quickly so she could turn off the pain.
John Quincy set the tree in a corner and moved to the fire to warm his hands. After rubbing them together a few seconds, he turned his attention to her.
“Let me have a look at that leg I set. I reckon it might be time to take the splints off. You’ll more than likely walk with a limp for a while, but in the end, you should be good as new.”
She allowed him to pull back the covers, and he ran his gnarled hands over the sturdy splints he’d secured to the sides of her leg. As gruff as he looked, he was amazingly gentle.
“Well, what do you say, girl? Are you up to trying to walk on it?”
She bit her bottom lip then nodded.
“Let me get my knife,” he said as he rose back off his haunches.
He went to the area of the cabin that served as the kitchen and rummaged around in the cabinet before returning with a sharp hunting knife. He cut open the cloth surrounding the splints then gently eased the wood away from her leg.
“Move your foot around a bit,” he encouraged. “Then we’ll have you stand up and test it out.”
She flexed her foot, wincing when her muscles protested the action.
“It’ll hurt a little,” he cautioned. “Nothing to worry about, though.”
He curled his arms underneath her back and waist, and she put out her hand.
“You can’t pick me up,” she protested.
He chuckled. “Me, can’t pick up a little bit of a thing like you? How do you think I got you here? Girl, I’ve hauled an eight hundred pound grizzly out of the woods to skin.”
She found herself lifted as he stood to his full height.
“Now, I’m going to set you down nice and easy. Take most of your weight with your good leg. Try not to overdo it.”
Her foot hit the floor, and she gritted her teeth as her various body parts protested her being upright. After three weeks of lying down, her body was weak and shaky. She’d barely even sat up each time she had to relieve herself.
John Quincy held her around the waist as she eased her bad leg down. Then she shifted her weight to both legs equally. Her knee buckled and he caught her before she crumbled to the floor.
He half carried her, half assisted her over to the small table and plopped her down in the chair.
“There now, you just sit there and get your bearings while I rustle us up some breakfast. Then you can supervise while I get the tree all decorated.”
Tears filled her eyes as she looked at the grizzled old man. “Thank you, John Quincy. I can’t ever hope to repay you for your kindness.”
His expression softened. “Now, girl, don’t go getting all teary-eyed on me. That pack of yours ought to be hunted down, shot and made into fur rugs for what they done to you.”
She hung her head as John Quincy started puttering around the kitchen. She hadn’t wanted him to know about the wolves at all, but he’d known of their existence a long time before Heather had ever set foot in these mountains. He’d known Magnus himself when he was younger. Called him friend.
Once she’d realized he knew of her wolves, she’d poured out the whole story to him, going through an entire box of tissue in the process. He’d jokingly told her he hoped he didn’t catch cold this winter because she’d used his entire supply up and he wouldn’t get more until the spring.
She looked back up at John Quincy. “Will it ever stop hurting?” she asked in a soft voice.
Kindness softened the wrinkles under his eyes. “It will, girl. In time. One day you’ll wake up a
nd not hurt as much as the day before. And the next will hurt less than that day. It takes time, but you’re a survivor. More importantly you’re a good, sweet girl. You don’t deserve what happened to you, but I have no doubt it’ll make you stronger.”