Finally, he’d stopped speaking at all.
For over three years, he’d remained mute rather than listen to the laughter and insults of others as they’d cruelly mimicked his stutter. But for his friend, Buffalo, he’d have never spoken again to anyone.
Unlike the rest of their clan, Buffalo hadn’t minded it, nor had Buffalo thought him stupid because of it.
Together, they’d invented their own sign language so that Ren could speak without using his voice.
Yet it wasn’t just his stutter that kept him silent now. He didn’t know what to say to her. He’d always been awkward with women. Buffalo used to joke that Ren could lead an army of men into battle and never hesitate. That he could face down an entire den of bears with his bare hands and not flinch.
Put a woman in front of him and he trembled like an errant child facing an angry parent.
If any clan wants to bring us down, all they have to do is send a woman after you and you’ll run screaming for the woods.
That was because as bad as he hated to be mocked and insulted by men, it was even harder to take from a woman he found desirable. Nothing stung worse than to muster the courage to talk to a woman and then have her shoot him down before he could get more than a badly stuttered word out.
And if they laughed at him …
There were some humiliations no one needed.
As much as he despised it, he was extremely attracted to this woman. All he could think about was tasting her lips. Of making love to her until they were both spent and dizzy.
To have one moment in her arms …
But he wasn’t brave enough to risk it. He’d been mocked enough in his life. Now, he only wanted to exist in solitude.
Suddenly, his phone rang.
Ren would have ignored it had it not been Talon’s ringtone. He still needed to tell them that the Ixkib was safe.
Pulling his phone out, he turned his back to the woman and answered it. “Osiyo?”
Kateri froze at how deep and resonant his voice was as he said “hello” in Tsalagi. It sounded nothing like it did in her dreams. It was much, much more masculine and baritone-like rumbling thunder.
And while his back wasn’t as terrifying as that penetrating grimace he wore whenever he faced her, it was every bit as well formed as his front. The kind of back that begged a woman to run her hand down it so that she could feel those hard muscles flex.
Her throat went dry as a wave of desire seared her. Stop it, Ter …
That was much easier said than done. There was something about him that was absolutely magnetic.
“She’s here.” Then Ren was silent again as he listened.
Well, at least I’m not the only one he ignores. She was surprised he wasn’t tapping out his answers on the phone-one tap meant yes. Two for no.
After a few seconds, he spoke again. “Later.” He hung up and closed the phone, then turned back around.
“So, you can speak,” she teased.
His face completely somber, he nodded as he slid the phone into his pocket.
“Can I ask who was on the phone, since it was obviously about me?”
At least she finally got a word from him that was actually directed at her. “You know … wow, these two-syllable answers … impressive. Can I ratchet it up to three? Oh heck, let’s go for broke and get a whole sentence out. What do you think?”
Ren wanted to be angry at her, but for some reason he found her charming. She wasn’t attacking him … she was playfully teasing him about the very things Jess, Choo, and Talon got on to him for.
Because of the way he’d been treated as a human, he never liked conversing with people. It was easier to pretend they didn’t exist. After all, he’d been invisible to most of them while he’d lived. Hell, even in death people rarely acknowledged him. It was why he kept to the shadows, out of their sight.
“C’mon, big guy,” she said, rising up on her tiptoes so that she could lay her hand against his jaw.
The moment her flesh touched his, his entire body went white-hot. Every hormone he possessed fired into overdrive. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe as that heat seared him and he tried to imagine what she’d taste like.
With a smile that caused his stomach to flutter, she moved his jaw up and down. “You can do it. Look how easy….” Then she deepened her voice to mimic his. “Wow, Teri. I never knew speaking would be so easy. Thanks for telling me. I might even want to try and do this on my own one day.”
In spite of himself, he smiled at her antics. No one had ever been so playful around him. Most kept a wide distance out of fear.
Pulling her hand away, he stared down at her. “Ha ha.”
She scowled. “You really can’t go over two syllables, can you? What? Did you lose a bet with a sorcerer or something? If you let out three does your head explode or do you get some form of ED?”
Erectile dysfunction? She did not just go there….
‘Cause from where he was standing, there was no chance of that. He was harder right now than he’d been in a long time. And all he could think about was pressing her hand against the part of him that was begging for a taste of her.
C’mon, Ren … just one small kiss….
Determined to keep her at a distance, he dropped his gaze to her arm.
His breath caught as his gaze focused on something that couldn’t be right.
No. Not possible. It couldn’t be. It was an illusion of the light. His mind playing some kind of sick joke …
It had to be.
His heart pounding, he reached out to take her right wrist. Turning it over, he saw the faint mark at the crook of her elbow that was in the shape of a spider.
It’s a coincidence….
But what if it wasn’t?
“Where did you get this?” he asked, brushing his hand over the mark.
She looked down and her frown deepened. “I was born with it. And I’m impressed. See, you can speak a whole sentence and not spontaneously combust into flames. Amazing, isn’t it?”
Honestly, he didn’t register a single word of what she was saying. He couldn’t. All he could focus on was a mark only one other person had ever borne.
One that no one else should have.
“What does your father say about this?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “Nothing. He walked out on us when I was a baby and I haven’t seen him since.”
His head reeling, he took a step back as everything started coming together.
She wasn’t just the Ixkib. She was also the daughter of the First Guardian….
“What aren’t you telling me?” Kateri asked with a very subtle drop in octave that told him she suspected she should be afraid. But other than that, she hid her panic well.
Damn. Ren should have recognized who she was the moment they met. Strange how the mind colored things and hid them from conscious thought. How something could be right under your nose and you missed it entirely …
Now that he knew the truth of her, it was obvious, and he had no idea how he could have been so stupid as to have been blind to it.
While her features and height were nothing like the First Guardian’s, she had his same eerie gold-tinged eyes that held a probing, deep intensity that seemed to strip away all lies, bravado, and pretenses so that their owner could see straight into the nak*d soul.
The first time he’d met the Guardian, that penetrating stare had reduced him back to the cowering dog that had lived only to gain his father’s approval. The pathetic shadow of a human who’d allowed his own brother to walk all over him while he protected the bastard with his blood and bone. The dog that had accepted the kicks of everyone who came into contact with him, thinking he deserved nothing better than their contempt.
For most of his life, Ren had honestly believed that rather than be angry or bitter, he should be grateful that anyone was willing to offer him a home at all. Dignity was something reserved for his betters.
As much as he’d convinced himself that he hated his father and Coyote over how they’d treated him, the truth was he’d hated himself more. He had been the one to swallow their abuse and say nothing. The one who had allowed them to treat him as if he was lesser.
All the while, he’d had the strength and skills to silence them. But rather than risk his “home” and what little security he knew, he’d taken their verbal assault and made himself believe that he couldn’t exist on his own.
That he really was weaker.
And the moment the First Guardian had looked into his eyes and stripped away the vengeance-seeking monster Windseer had awakened so that he was again a vulnerable human, Ren had unleashed that hatred all over the ancient for daring to see the truth. But in the end, the First Guardian had been right. It wasn’t the First Guardian Ren had ferociously battled for that entire year so much as himself.
He, and no other, had always been his worst enemy.
Anyone else would have condemned Ren for his past atrocities and demanded his life. Instead, the First Guardian had embraced him like a brother. You allowed someone you loved to blind you with her lies. You trusted in her to look after a fragile heart that had never beat with acceptance before. While you committed evil at her command, the evil wasn’t inside you. You took no pleasure or comfort from your actions. No pride.
I see your heart, Makah’Alay. You are shamed and horrified by what you’ve done. You know how wrong it was and you don’t hide from that fact. You flog yourself far worse than I ever could.
But what you have to remember is that there are only two men in life who are perfect. The one not yet born and the one who has died. We all make mistakes. It’s part of growing. The trick isn’t to be perfect. It’s to find a place of solace in the mind so that it doesn’t cane you for trusting the wrong person or following after the wrong dream. All of us fall victim to harmful guile at some point.
But hatred and rage solve nothing. Like a mighty fire, they quickly consume whatever is fed them. Yet it can’t last. Soon enough, they devour all around them and burn out, leaving nothing but a hollowed shell no longer capable of feeling anything at all.
You, Makah’Alay, are the mighty Thunderbird. Born of human sorrow, you are the bringer of storms that swept through the land, destroying everything in its path.
Now spent, it is humble and giving. A protector who will sacrifice his life to save another.
How could I ever fault or punish that?
The cycle of the universe is birth, growth, death. And death, while unwelcome, is always necessary. Without death, there is no birth and no growth.
Most men die many times in their lives. The man we become invariably slaughters the child we once were. His knowledge of the world murders the babe’s innocence. With the step you have just taken, the wise Makah’Alay has now laid the warrior Makah’Alay to rest. While you still know how to fight, you have now learned when to fight….
And most important, what to fight for.
Others and not himself. The First Guardian hadn’t said the last four words, but that had been the lesson Ren had learned. Until the First Guardian had spared him, he’d always fought for his own glory, even while he claimed he was fighting for Coyote and his father. He hadn’t really been protecting his brother. He’d been hoping that his father would take notice of his skills. That his father would, just once, embrace him and be proud to call him son.
But no one could change the mind of someone else. That was for them to do. And if they weren’t willing, then there was no magic in existence to make them see what they didn’t want to see.
His father had never held any use for him.
It wasn’t my opinions that changed. It was my perceptions. That had always been Buffalo’s quip whenever someone accused him of capriciousness.
Now, centuries later, Ren stared into the same pair of eyes that had once motivated him to murder….
“How much do you know about your father?” he asked her.
“Nothing really. My mother didn’t speak about him. My grandmother told me the memories were too painful for her to bear and that I shouldn’t mention him around her. So I never did.”
“Your mother still won’t speak of him?”
“My mother died when I was a girl.”
So that was it, then. The First Guardian must have known that the Ixkib’s line would die out and so he’d intervened to protect that from happening during one of their most crucial times. Knowing her mother would perish, he’d given her a child so that there would be a new Ixkib to carry on.
Which still begged the question of where the First Guardian was now. It wasn’t like him to be missing while his daughter was in danger.
Maybe she’s not really his daughter.
But he knew better. Between the mark all Guardians had and her eyes …
He had no doubt about her. While her powers lay dormant, they were still present to anyone who looked past the surface. In all his life, he’d only been defeated one time.
By her father. And even then, it hadn’t been through her father’s superior battle skills. Rather, the First Guardian had won the fight mentally. He’d verbally stripped Ren bare and left him exposed until his will to fight was gone.
It was the dirtiest trick anyone had ever used on him. And given his past, that said a lot.
She arched one probing brow. “What are you hiding from me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve always had the ability to know whenever someone was keeping a secret. You have a deep one. I can feel it.”
Oh yeah, she was definitely the daughter. No one else had ever been able to read his moods-not the way the First Guardian had.