She barely knew him and yet … she’d been with him for years. "Did you ever see visions of me?"
He pulled back to stare down at her. Cupping her jaw in his large hand, he teased her chin with his thumb. At first, she didn’t think he’d answer. But after a brief pause, he gave a subtle nod.
"What did you see?"
Ren’s first thought went to the images of her killing him. Now at least he understood why he never fought her for his life. But those weren’t the only dreams of her he’d had. "I’ve seen you in a yellow dress with hummingbirds on it and a matching yellow sweater. You were a young teenager and had yellow ribbons in your hair. You were happy about something and you threw your arms around an older man."
A winsome smile curled her lips, reminding him of how she’d looked in his mind. "My sixteenth birthday. My grandmother made that dress for me. I hated it, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings so I wore it."
"And the man?"
"My stepfather. He adopted me right before my mother died. It’s why my last name is Avani. He was from New Delhi and used to joke all the time about which of us was more Indian."
"What happened to him?"
"He died of cancer while I was in college."
"I’m so sorry."
She swallowed against the grief that choked her. She’d loved him so … Every day, she missed him terribly. "Thank you. He was a good man. He married my mom when I was four and you’d have never known he wasn’t my biological father."
"You were at a dance with him when you were older. You wore a short blue skirt and white blouse."
She nodded. "It was a father-daughter charity dance that was sponsored by his office."
He frowned at her. "Why did you burst out crying during one of the dances? Did he hurt your feelings?"
"Oh God no. He’d just been diagnosed with cancer and they started playing the Bob Carlisle song, ‘Butterfly Kisses.’"
"I don’t know it."
"It’s a song about a woman and her father and-" She broke off into a sob.
"Sh," he said, pulling her back into his arms. "I’m so sorry, Kateri. I didn’t mean to make you cry."
"No, it’s okay." She sniffed back her tears. "I wish you’d known a father like him, Ren. He was so good to me. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel his loss as much as I do my mother’s and my grandmother’s. I was so lucky to have him. And he loved my mother more than you can imagine. To the day he died, he had their wedding photo on his desk, and his one request for his funeral was that I place a photo of her on his heart and lay his hands over it. I remember asking him once, years after her death, why he never dated anyone. He told me that he’d found his one perfect soul mate and that there was no reason in trying to find another. No woman would ever mean as much to him as my mother had and that he didn’t have room in his heart or life for anyone else. Keeping up with me was a full-time job and it was the only job he really wanted."
Ren had no way of relating to the love she described. But it sounded incredible. "I’m glad he was good to you."
Kateri burst into deep, wrenching sobs.
What did I do? Ren pulled back and cupped her face in both of his hands. Never had he felt so lost. He hadn’t meant to hurt her with his comment. Stupidly, he’d thought to make her feel better. He’d spent so little time around women that he had no idea how to help her. Did all women do this?
Was it normal? Or had he broken her with his ignorance?
And still she sobbed as if something inside her had snapped. What could he say? After what just happened, he was terrified to even try.
"Don’t look at me," she wailed.
He released her and started to turn away.
She grabbed him and threw herself into his arms. He stood there, stunned. Okay. She wanted him to hold her, yet not look at her. Weird, but okay.
Dammit, Sundown, where are you when I need advice? Surely, his married friend would have a clue.
Ren searched his mind for something he could do to soothe her. The only thing he could remember was seeing mothers with crying children. They would hold and rock them.
Scooping her up in his arms, he carried her to a small clearing and sat down to hold her in his lap. He brushed the hair back from her face while she sobbed against his chest and clung to him. Wow, all this over what he thought was an innocuous comment meant to cheer her up. You will never understand people.
That was definitely true. They’d never made sense to him in any way.
So he held her against him and rocked her gently, hoping they didn’t get attacked until she had time to finish.
Kateri hated that she’d fallen apart like this. It was what she hated most about grieving. Most days, she was fine. But every now and again, a sight or smell would ambush her, or she’d hear a song, see something that evoked a buried memory, and it would hit her all over again just how much she missed them. How much she wanted them back and how much she hated that she’d never see them again. It wasn’t fair. Other people got to keep their parents most of their lives. But not her. Until last night, she’d never even met her biological father.
And as bad as that was, she couldn’t imagine the pain of not having them at all. It made her wonder what was worse. Not knowing what you were missing or knowing exactly how it felt to be loved and cared for and then having it ripped brutally away from you.
She covered her eyes with her hand and groaned at what a basket case she must look like to poor Ren. "I am so sorry, sweetie. It’s just been a horrendous last few days. I’m tired. I’m scared, and I lost a really good friend right before all of this happened."
Ren didn’t respond. He just kept rocking her.
Frowning, she wiped at her eyes and looked up at him. "Are you all right?"
He nodded, then brushed away more of her tears.
"Then why aren’t you speaking to me?"
Panic flashed across his features. He glanced away as if trying to think of a response.
"Ren? Talk to me."
His lips twitched before he finally spoke in a low tone. "I don’t want to say the wrong thing again and make you cry more."
The pure innocent sweetness of that wrenched another sob from her.
"Ah, see now what I did. I’m sorry, Kateri. I won’t say anything else. I promise."
She laid her head down on his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his neck. "It’s so not you, baby. You did nothing, absolutely nothing wrong." She squeezed him tight, wishing she could make him understand. "All you’ve been is wonderful…."
Ren knew she was speaking, but he couldn’t make out the words. Not after she’d called him baby and sweetie. No one had ever used an endearment for him before. Until now, the closest anyone had come was to call him friend or brother.
But baby …
He’d never been anyone’s baby.
"Are you listening to me?"
You should probably say yes. That would be the smartest thing to do. But for some stupid reason the truth came out before he could stop it. "Um … no."
"Why are you tuning me out?" she snapped as fury lit up her eyes.
Ren moved his jaw, trying to explain, but no words would leave his lips as he stammered over the word I. Why do I always do this shit when I least want to look like an idiot?
He expected her to be angry. Instead, she kissed him senseless. Every part of him went into overdrive as his c**k hardened.
She pulled back. "What were you trying to say?"
Heat scalded his face. "I didn’t hear anything after you called me baby."
Kateri laid her hand over his cheek at the anguish she saw on his face. Her heart lurched. Given what she’d seen of his life, she was willing to bet it was the first time anyone had ever used an endearment for him. While most people grew up being called "sugar" and "darling" by others, he never had, and he’d secluded himself to the point that he most likely hadn’t even been called that by a waitress, let alone someone who actually cared about him.
"I know that place deep down inside where it feels like no one cares. No one sees you. No one knows you. But I see you, Ren, and I do care. I know exactly how it feels to be alone in this world." She laughed bitterly as she remembered something Fernando had said to her about one of the most influential innovators in the field of archaeology and anthropology. "Margaret Mead once said that one of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder when you are coming home at night."
She smiled at him. "There’s nothing lonelier than an empty house when you’re going to bed. I’ve lost everyone I’ve ever loved and I’m scared as hell at the thought of letting you or anyone else into my heart to hurt me like that again. Because every time I lose one of them, a part of me goes to the grave with them and I’m not sure how much of me is left anymore. But I’m willing to take that leap again … for you."
Ren swallowed as he understood what had motivated her to burst into tears. No one had ever said anything kinder to him. Her words touched a place inside him he hadn’t known existed. A part of him that had never been touched before.
"I could never hurt you, sweetie," she breathed.
In that single moment, he was completely lost to her. I’m such an effing idiot. He hadn’t even gotten laid first, this time, and he had no business letting her get close to him, yet somehow she was already there. He had no idea how it’d happened, but he’d basically been a goner the first moment she smiled at him.
"Are you going to say anything?"
Ren didn’t trust his voice. So instead, he kissed her slowly and tenderly, savoring every stroke of her tongue against his. Breathless, he laid her back against the ground and covered her with his body. Stars blinded him as an unbelievable pleasure tore through him.
Kateri smiled as Ren left her lips to trail hot kisses down her neck. Had she not understood why he didn’t speak, she’d be offended. But that wasn’t his way. He was a man of very few words. He spoke through his actions, not with his voice. In a way, she preferred it. There was no way to misinterpret his tenderness.
He slowly unbuttoned her shirt, then ran his hand over her br**sts. Arching her back, she moaned at how good he felt. The hunger in his eyes was searing as he struggled with her bra.
She smiled at his confusion. "It snaps in the front."
He still had no clue.
"I guess they didn’t have these back in the day, eh?"
"No. It’s like a puzzle box."
Laughing, she took his hands and showed him how to undo it.
Ren sucked his breath in sharply at the sight of her bare br**sts. He’d assumed some of their size was from padding, but that was definitely not true, and while he didn’t have a lot of experience in this department, he knew she was well endowed. "You’re so beautiful."
She took his hand into hers and led it to her mouth so that she could kiss, then nip his knuckle. A shiver went over him. She returned his hand to her breast before pulling his head down to hers to nibble his lips. If he could, he’d die right now in this perfect moment of sensory overload.
Kateri felt the muscles in his jaw tighten as he clenched his teeth. Damn, he was the sexiest man she’d ever been near. The raw strength and power. The adorable vulnerable innocence that shouldn’t exist inside someone like him. It combined into the most irresistible package imaginable.
Wanting to please him, she pulled his shirt off, over his head, then rolled him onto his back. She paused as she saw the scars and injuries that riddled his body. But the scar that wrung her heart was in the center of his chest. Jagged and raw, it was bigger than her fist.
Her hand shaking, she placed it over his heart to finger that scar. The moment she did, a brutal vision came to her with a clarity so clear, it stunned her…. Ren and Coyote were in a grand dining hall where they were fighting over the corpse of a man who’d been beaten so badly that she couldn’t tell who it was.
His entire body coated in blood, Coyote sneered at Ren, who gaped in horror at what his brother had done. "This is all your fault," Coyote sneered. "You and your petty jealousy. Why couldn’t you have been happy for me? Just once in your miserable life. Why? Had you left us alone, none of this would have happened. There would have been no Grizzly Spirit. No need for Guardians and he"-Coyote gestured to the floor with a knife-"would never have come here to claim her."
Ren didn’t respond. His gaze was fastened to the red on Coyote’s hands. It went from there to the floor where …
Buffalo lay dead in a pool of blood. She only knew the man’s identity because Ren knew.
He winced as unmitigated grief tore through him. "How could you do this? He was a Guardian." And my best friend in the world. The one and only person who’d stood by him without question.
Even when evil had claimed possession of his body and he’d served it willingly, Buffalo had stayed with him. Protecting him.
Now he lay slain by Ren’s own brother.
My cruelty drove him mad….
His brother had been pure and decent until Ren had tortured him. It’s all my fault. All of it.
Coyote spit on Buffalo’s body. "He was a bastard and he stole her heart from me."
Ren shook his head slowly as guilt and sorrow ripped him apart. "Hearts can never be stolen. They can only be given."
Coyote sneered at him. "You’re wrong! That’s your jealousy speaking."