Tangle of Need

By: Nalini Singh

“Are you in the mating dance with Lisette?” Hawke asked at last, scratching the head of the wild wolf that had curled up beside him. “Because if you are, your wolf’s made the decision for you and trying to fight it will destroy you.”

“No.” Neither man nor wolf wanted to be in the dance with Lisette—the idea of it felt wrong on every level, a betrayal so vast, it made his wolf snarl in defiance. “All Lisette and I ever had between us was a possibility.” And he knew in his gut that the time for that possibility to come to fruition had passed, regardless of any accepted rule. “Have you ever known a wolf in a relationship to find his mate?”

Hawke took time to reply. “I’ve known couples who’ve been together for years to suddenly develop a mating bond. I’ve always thought that perhaps the human’s choice influences the wolf’s, or maybe two people come into perfect sync after that time together—kind of like Indigo and Drew knowing each other for so long before they mated.”

Riaz understood what his alpha was saying, had seen the same thing himself, but—

“That’s not the question I asked.”

Husky-pale eyes locked with Riaz’s. “The answer is no. Love without the bond, where the wolf accepts the lover, rather than being neutral about it, seems to stop the mating bond coming into play with anyone else.” Pausing, he added, “Simplest explanation is that the commitment takes the place of the mating bond.”

“So if I’d met Adria first”—fallen so fucking hard for her first—“I wouldn’t have to deal with this.” A situation where the woman he adored thought he was meant for another.

“Yeah, likely.” Hawke patted the side of the wolf whose head he’d been scratching, and it reluctantly made room for another. “Dalton might know more about this than either one of us,” the alpha said, naming the pack’s Librarian, “but there is something else I can tell you.”

Riaz waited.

“The choice isn’t yours—it’s always the woman who accepts or rejects the bond.”

“Hell it isn’t.” Riaz’s claws sliced out of his skin. “The female might accept the bond, but I damn well bet you the male’s got to be willing. This one isn’t.” Once, he would’ve sold his soul to be Lisette’s, but something fundamental had changed in him, his soul reborn from a crucible of shattering pain. He’d survived, come out of it scarred, altered, stronger, a man who loved a soldier and had no desire to turn back the clock.

“It’s Adria’s face I see when I think of home.” Adria’s eyes of blue-violet that looked back at him from the faces of the children he’d started to imagine since that night in the moonlit meadow where she had become his. “Adria who holds my secrets.”

“You’d walk away from the woman meant to be your mate?”

“Yes.” Maybe it wasn’t a choice any other wolf would ever make—hell, the idea might even horrify—but no other wolf had lived the life that had led up to this moment. “I’ve found the woman who’s meant to be mine.” The woman who had his wolf’s wild devotion.

“Are you sure?” his alpha asked, though he’d just given his answer.

Riaz met the other man’s gaze, his anger so deep he knew his eyes were those of the predator that lived within him.

But Hawke didn’t back down. “You’re talking about Adria’s life,” he said. “You have to be certain you’re never going to turn around and see a lack in her.”

Riaz wasn’t even aware of reacting. He just knew he had his clawed hand around Hawke’s throat, his alpha’s hand gripping his wrist in a punishing hold.

Pale blue eyes met his own, Hawke’s own wolf calm.

Growling low in his throat, he withdrew his hand, his claws slicing back into his skin. “I died, Hawke.” Brutal words. “When I first saw Lisette and realized she’d never be mine, I broke into so many pieces I was the walking dead when I returned to the den.”

It was Adria who’d forced him back to life, who’d challenged, fought, and played with him until he wasn’t only alive but wildly, gloriously so. “I trust Adria on a level I don’t even trust you.” As was right. A wolf should trust his mate more than any other … yet Adria wasn’t his mate, except in his heart. “My wolf trusts her.” He let that wolf rise to the surface, let it color his eyes and his voice.

Hawke blew out a breath. “As your mate, Lisette has the potential to earn an even deeper trust.”

Riaz snorted, conscious the alpha was playing devil’s advocate. “And you have the potential to take up knitting.” The wolf thought in far more concrete terms, and it had given its loyalty and its heart to Adria. That someone else might be a better fit, even when that someone else promised to be its mate? It was a pointless consideration.

A quiet nod, an acceptance. “What’re you going to do?”

“Convince Adria I mean what I say.” He’d accept no other outcome.

ADRIA made certain she swapped tasks and shifts to ensure there was no chance of running into Riaz. Her skin hurt, her bed a cold place she hated, her entire body aching with a loss that made her feel as if she’d been beaten. She wasn’t sure she could stop herself from reaching for him if she saw him.