When his grandmother started to lead them to train, Dancer stopped them.
“Yaya, before you take her to the gym, may I show her to the conservatory? She hasn’t been there yet, and I would like the pleasure of seeing her face the first time she views it.”
Sumi was touched by his question and especially this much quieter and more tender part of her fierce warrior. Thia had been right. There were two very distinct sides to Dancer. The ferocious War Hauk who took mercy on no one – who went in with both blasters at max settings and wreaked all manner of havoc on his enemies – and the precious Dancer who tempered his actions and sarcasm for those he loved and cherished.
And then there was the lover and protector she knew. A whole other beast entirely, and yet it was comprised of those two very different facets of what he showed to the world. The only difference was that for her, he dropped those shields and she saw the raw vulnerability in his heart that no one else was ever privy to.
She, alone, was trusted with his true feelings. Only she knew what really hurt him. And she would never cause him harm.
Taking her arm, his grandmother led her down the long hallway. “The conservatory was always my favorite room. Dancer’s paran had it built for me to celebrate the birth of his father. Unlike my husband, I grew up on a remote outpost where we had such vegetation that you could walk for days and not see another Andarion. When I came here to marry his paran, I missed my home terribly. So he created this room to simulate what I loved most… besides him and our sons.” She stopped to open a door.
Dancer moved forward so that he was facing her.
Sumi sucked her breath in sharply the moment the door slid open to show the most amazing room she’d ever beheld. At least a thousand square feet, it was like walking into a perfectly groomed jungle and park, all in one. The botanist in her sang out loud at the sight.
“Oh my goodness!” She rushed to the first small pond that housed fish and aquatic plants she’d never seen before. Not even in catalogues. Even the columns of the room held pockets of herbs in them. There were birds and butterflies. Other small flying creatures she’d need to look up to identify.
This… this was her idea of heaven. Giddy, she ran around until she came to a corner where a long table was set and everyone had gathered this morning.
Suddenly horrified by her childish behavior, she pulled up short. “Sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was here.”
Dancer came up behind her. “Don’t be embarrassed, mia. The expression on your face when that door opened will live forever in my heart. I’m so glad my home pleases you.”
Unable to contain the joy and love that overwhelmed her, she pulled him into her arms and held him close. “Thank you for bringing me here. It’s absolutely stunning!”
Hauk closed his eyes and buried his hand in her soft blond hair. His entire body craved her now. So much so that it was hard to not scoop her up in his arms and carry her back to their bedroom. He couldn’t wait to get everyone out of his house so that he’d have unrestricted time with his brave little mouse.
“Is it just me,” Caillen said. “Or does Hauk’s hulking ass make her look so tiny that it’s a wonder he doesn’t snap her in half?”
With an irritable growl, Hauk pulled back to glare at him. In fact, everyone was glaring at him.
“What?” he asked innocently. “Like the rest of you weren’t thinking the same thing. He’s huge. She’s not.”
Syn yanked the muffin out of Caillen’s hands. “Case it’s escaped your notice, fat ass. You and Desideria have a larger height and weight ratio differential than Hauk and Sumi.”
“Hell no, we don’t… do we?”
“Yes, sweetie,” Desideria said with a laugh as she adjusted her slumbering daughter in her lap. “I know you’re nowhere near as tall as Hauk, but you’re well over a foot taller than me and he’s only a few inches taller than Sumi… and if you say anything about my weight, you’ll be sleeping at one of your sisters’ homes from now until the Qillaq moons explode.”
Caillen rolled his eyes. “What is it with women and their weight? Gah! You’re pregnant, Ria. You’re not supposed to fit into your pre-pregnancy pants right now. Not that I care, one way or the other… Woman, you are perfect in my eyes. I married a sexy, hot warrior, not a number on a scale. Or this mutant life form you’re convinced inhabits your body until you put on your makeup. How many times do I have to say it before you actually believe me?”
Desideria passed a satisfied smirk to Shahara. “You asked me why I love your brother? That’s a biggie right there. You trained him right.”
Caillen grinned, then belched.
Groaning, Shahara rolled her eyes before she gave Desideria a long, hard stare. “You were saying?”
“He’s a work in progress.” Desideria handed her daughter to Caillen. “Try not to teach her any bad habits over the next hour.” She got up. “And speaking of training, we have serious work to do to get Sumi ready for her match.”
Shahara handed Devyn to Syn. “I’m not even going to say don’t do it. I already know better. I don’t know what’s worse. What Devyn learns from you or from Vik.”
Vik snorted. “I’m not the one who sits on the couch and scratches his —”
“Vik!” Syn snapped. “You know Eleron wants to feed you to the garbage disposal, right? You keep that up and I’ll green-light her.”
Laughing at them, Devyn bounced in his father’s lap.
Shahara paused beside Dancer. “Are you staying with the guys or following us?”
“You. I want to make sure that Sumi knows what to expect. But before we go…” Dancer headed to the small brunette who quietly held the tiniest baby Sumi had ever seen. He kissed the woman’s cheek before he knelt down next to her so that he could peer at the newborn. “Hey, Cezar, it’s a pleasure meeting the little guy who made Daddy lose all of his mind. You almost got his ass whipped by two Andarions and a Phrixian.”
An attractive reddish-brown-haired man sitting across from her and next to Maris laughed. Like Zarya, he cradled a baby boy in his lap, who was a few months older.
Dancer flashed a grin before he held his hand out toward Sumi. “Zarya Cruel,” he inclined his head to the man who’d laughed, “Ture Xans-Sulle, meet my Sumi.”
Good gracious. How many more people make up his family? It wasn’t fair. She had no one for him to meet at all. He really did come with his own army of people.
Nervous all over again, she approached them slowly. “Hi.”
Zarya handed her son off to Dancer so that she could stand and give her a hug. She patted Sumi on the back before she withdrew and held both of her hands in hers. “I know that look on your face. I had it less than a year ago, myself.” She tilted her head to Ture. “As did my best friend when he joined us. But the good news is, we all love you because Hauk loves you. And if you need anything at all, we are your family now. All you have to do is call us and we’re there.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “Thank you.”
Like a proud father, Dancer brought Cezar over to them. He was so tiny he fit easily into Dancer’s palm. “Would you like to hold him?”
She made a face at the thought. “He’s awful little.”
Zarya laughed. “I had the same reaction a few days ago when they handed him off to me for the first time. I’m still rather shocked someone thinks I’m a responsible parent.”
Laughing, Dancer moved to stand behind Sumi before he placed Cezar in her arms.
Emotions overwhelmed her as she stared down at the tiny little newborn. While she’d enjoyed holding Zarina, this was entirely different. She glanced over to the baby in Ture’s arms. “Are they really only a few months apart in age?”
Zarya nodded. “They are.”
“I never realized babies grew so fast.”
“Unbelievably fast,” Maris said as he joined them with the infant Ture had been holding. “This is our son, Terek. He’s five months old… just a few weeks older than Zarina.”
Terek had a very serious look to him as he chewed his fist. His face was swallowed by his large, dark eyes.
“He’s beautiful, Mari. I know you’re proud of him.” Tears swelled in her eyes as she looked down at Cezar and then at all the other babies in the room. Especially Lillya.
For the first time, she understood Thia’s pain. Why it was so hard to be with them. This… this was what life should be like. A family that would defend and protect. Mothers and fathers who would trudge through hell itself to shield their children from any enemy.
She’d never once known that. Thia had been practically grown before she’d found it.
She was out there alone. With no one to hold her and love her. No one to protect her from harm.
Her sobs burst as she thought about her daughter in the hands of people who couldn’t care less about her. People who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her any way they could.
She handed Cezar back to his mother before she ran from the room, seeking refuge from the pain lacerating her heart. This was all she’d ever wanted in her life.
Safety. Love. A place to raise her daughter with people who cherished her as much as Sumi did.
Suddenly, she felt Dancer behind her. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight while she expelled all the misery she kept bottled up.
Zarya looked around, baffled by what had just happened. “Did I say or do something wrong?”
Syn shook his head sadly. “Sumi has a daughter in League custody that we’re trying to find and save.”
Maris winced as he tightened his grip on Terek. “I didn’t even think about that.”
Syn clapped him on the back. “None of us did. We’re proud of our babies and wanted to show them off.”
“Yeah, but if we couldn’t be with them…” Zarya choked on a sob of her own. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. I’m so sorry.”
Syn swept his gaze around every person there. Countless times, they’d gone to war with a single goal. Seldom had they been as united as they were when it came to their families. “We will get that baby back.”
Maris nodded. “Saf still has contacts. It’s time to call in every favor we can.”
“We already have,” Syn said with a dismal sigh, “but we haven’t found out anything yet.”
Maris snorted. “You have contacts, yes. But it’s time to show off the reach that my birth family has.”
Hauk held Sumi close until she finally drew a ragged breath.
“I’m so sorry I embarrassed you.”
He tilted her chin up so that she could meet his sincere gaze. Wanting to comfort her, he kissed away her tears. “You did not embarrass me, mia. Very soon, our daughter will be playing right alongside their children. And she will be spoiled more than any daughter ever born. She will know nothing but our love. I swear that to you.”
“Our daughter?” his grandmother asked, suddenly.
He glanced over his shoulder to his grandmother and cousin. “Sumi has agreed to honor me with fatherhood when we find her daughter.”
She smiled at Sumi. “So I will have another great-granddaughter to spoil? How wonderful! Then let us be about this training so that we can cement your family, Dancer. I want to see you settled with a female who is worthy of your heart, and there is nothing more dear to mine than another child to love and spoil.”
Hauk inclined his head, grateful that his grandmother was so kind and accepting. However, his mother would be another story. Far more traditional, she would never forgive him for being with a human. And he doubted if she would ever so much as look at Kalea.
Not that it mattered. He and Sumi would treasure her so that she would never miss having a grandmother’s love.
Shahara and Desideria slowly joined them.
“Are we interrupting?”
Sumi sniffed back her tears at their kindness. “Sorry. I —”
“Shh,” Shahara said. “Don’t apologize. We all understand, and we’re very sorry if we hurt you.”
Sumi pulled her into a hug. “God, no. You’ve all been so wonderful that it’s made it extra hard, I think. I’m not used to this.”
Desideria laughed. “Believe me, we all know that feeling. My older sister tried to kill me and my husband before we married.”
“What?” Sumi asked breathlessly.
Shahara nodded. “That was after she tried to frame them both for murder. Makes you appreciate your own family, eh?”
Taking her by the arm, Shahara patted her shoulder. “Just remember, family isn’t perfect. It’s just perfectly ours.” She led the way to the gym that was down the hall. Fain stayed behind.
Sumi wasn’t sure what to expect given the extravagance of the rest of the house. And the gym definitely didn’t disappoint. Which made sense, given Dancer’s physique. He probably spent more time in here than anywhere else.