Cobalt’s heavy black boots chewed up the loose gravel at the edge of the river where he had been wearing a trench since ending his shift six hours ago, pacing relentlessly through the night as he wrestled with himself.
He should have spoken to Rath when he had arrived at Cougar Creek weeks ago, shouldn’t have let it go this long without talking to his older brother. Now, it was getting harder and harder to find the right moment, or even the right words, or the damned courage to tell him what had happened, even when he needed the advice.
He needed to unburden his shoulders before he broke under the weight of it all.
It was a solid plan, and all his brother could do was shoot it down, but fuck, it was difficult just thinking about approaching Rath and laying it all out there. It had him awake most nights, restless and pacing, and he was lucky his cabin was secluded, set away from the others on its own small parcel of riverfront land, or someone would have noticed that he had gone the past four days without sleep.
Shit, someone was going to notice it soon regardless. There was only so long he could make it before one of his brothers took a look at him and finally saw just how thinly spread he was, how stretched tight and in danger of breaking.
Although, the reason he had been losing sleep might have more to do with the spring mating gathering that had called him back to Cougar Creek and a certain female who was participating for the first time.
He tried not to think about Ember, about the fact his raven-haired beauty had finally hit a century old and had matured, and how he had felt the second he had set eyes on her at the creek this time.
Cobalt tried not to think about that every damned second of the day and night, but it haunted and tormented him.
Realising she had come to attend the gathering, that males were going to fight for the right to ease her as her need to mate mounted and he was unable to be among them because of his position within the pride, had been a hard punch to the gut followed by one right in his chest that had felt as if it was going to smash his heart to pieces.
It had left him reeling, off balance and dangerous.
He had arrived at the creek in time to discover Storm, his younger brother, had gone off to fight a bear shifter, and the combination of seeing Ember at the creek looking for a male to take care of her needs and his brother in danger had sent Cobalt into a rage so deep he had come close to chasing the bear shifter when he had retreated, determined to end the bastard and uncaring whether he had to take on the male’s entire pride to do it.
Only the realisation that Storm had been badly wounded had stopped him in the end, giving him something else to focus on and allowing him to pull back on the reins and regain control.
Cobalt shoved his hands through his platinum-blond wild hair and growled as he clawed at it, pivoted and began pacing back along the clearing in front of his cabin, faster now as his emotions started to get the better of him again.
He needed to fight. His muscles felt too tight, clamped on his bones, his entire body pulled as taut as a bowstring and, fuck, he was in danger of snapping.
His claws lengthened, his fangs sharpening as frustration mounted, an explosive mix of anger, shame and bitter disappointment. He snarled, lips peeling back off his teeth, and wheeled to pace back the way he had come, his strides clipped as the need to fight merged with an ache to shift.
Gods, he wanted to surrender to that soul-deep ache.
He wanted to purge every damned feeling that was boiling inside him, twisting him and pulling him apart, and let instinct take over. Shifting into his cougar form would give him that release and the relief from it all he so desperately needed.
His animal form dampened his emotions because it couldn’t process them as easily as his human side so it suppressed them instead. His messy feelings would fade into the background if he remained as a cougar for long enough as his instincts rose to swamp him.
In that form, he obeyed a more basic and uncomplicated set of needs.
Fight. Feed. Fuck. Survive.
It was all that mattered when he was running as a cougar, and it was tempting to let it sweep over him, but it was dangerous too.
Those instincts were liable to send him straight to Ember.
He wanted to fight for her, as the other males could, and, sweet gods almighty, he needed to ease her needs, ached to give her the relief he could feel she desperately needed. Whenever he was close to her, it drummed in his blood and drove him to do something, whatever it took to ensure that she found the release from her instincts, from the mating heat that had brought her to Cougar Creek.
Cobalt tried to push her out of his head, but need flared inside him, made him want to claw his own damned skin off as he twitched restlessly, body primed for the delicate, beautiful female who had caught his eye two decades ago and had been on his mind ever since.
In his heart.
The sun crept higher, breaking the tops of the mountains as he turned away from the creek and paced back towards the other side of his small territory. It chased the crisp coolness from the morning air and from his arms, making him aware of how cold he had gotten in just his black t-shirt and jeans.
Cobalt slowed his step to bask in the light, letting it warm him and wash over him, wishing it would carry away all his troubles as it used to whenever he had bathed in it when he was a kid.
The mist swirled as the air heated, rippling over the surface of the shallow broad river to his right and snaking around his ankles.
He stared at the horizon and drew down a slow, deep breath of the cold air. Narrowed his focus to that distant point where jagged snow-capped mountains met the sky and let everything else fall away from his shoulders, until they felt lighter again.
He couldn’t let this go on any longer.
He would go mad if he did.
With Ember’s presence pushing at his restraint, cranking him tight with emotions that were tearing him apart and instincts that were making him volatile, he needed all of his focus to control himself around her and the other males. He didn’t need to be distracted by what had happened.
But Rath was always caught up in Ivy, his beautiful mate, and it pained Cobalt to see them together, so happy and swept up in each other. He couldn’t even talk to Storm because his younger brother was away in England looking into his mate’s half-brother’s background, trying to determine whether he really had been working alone and not with Archangel, a hunter organisation that had attacked his pride almost four decades ago.
An organisation that had taken their parents from them and had come close to taking Storm too.
Just thinking about that night had the need to fight rising again, a wild and feral urge to bloody his claws and fangs in order to protect his brothers.
Cobalt focused on the sunrise again, using it to calm that urge. It was slow to leave him, his fatigue and another night of worrying leaving him worn down and weak to it.
When it had finally flowed out of him, he looked down at his hands.
At his extended claws.
He stared at them, willing them to go away, but they refused.
He needed to speak with Rath.
It needed to be today.
Before he became a liability, a male not on the edge but firmly over it, one who was likely to fight over the slightest thing.
And he knew with a sickening sense of certainty that if he fought, it wouldn’t end there.
He would kill.
Cold went through him, his blood icy sludge in his veins, and his stomach churned.
He growled at himself. He had let this go on long enough, couldn’t put it off any longer or he would be a danger to the pride.
Cobalt twisted on his heel and marched along the riverbank, heading away from the sunrise and towards the area where most of the cabins at Cougar Creek were situated.
Ember’s family’s one included.
His pulse jacked up as he spotted it through the trees nearest the river. The lodgepole pines and spruces sheltered it, providing some cover for it where it stood just ten metres from the riverbank, facing onto the large swath of green that formed the main area of the creek.
Smoke curled lazily from the chimney, signalling someone was up.
His step slowed and he couldn’t stop himself from glancing across at the front of the L-shaped cabin as he entered the clearing and started up the two-hundred metre stretch of grass to where his brother’s cabin stood at the top of it, nestled beneath the trees.
The curtains were drawn across the small windows that flanked the door of her cabin, blocking him out. An ache started inside him, throbbed deep in his bones and had his step slowing further, until he almost stopped and surrendered to it.
He wanted to see her.
That yearning burned inside him, a need he found hard to deny. His instincts pushed him to step up onto her deck and knock on her door, to go to her. Fuck, they more than pushed him.
They demanded it.
She was his.
He knew that.
Gods, he knew it.
It blazed inside him like an eternal flame that was only growing fiercer, burned so hot he felt as if it was going to devour him sometimes, utterly destroy him unless he found a way to calm the raging flames.
There was only one way that was going to happen, and while his position as pride protector had been a blessing before, keeping the females away from him because his duty meant he couldn’t participate in the gathering, it was the worst of fucking curses now that Ember was taking part for the first time.
And he couldn’t.
He had never hated his duty before, but he hated it with a vengeance now.
When he and his brothers had taken it on in the wake of the Archangel attack over thirty years ago, a brutal assault that had left the pride shaken and had forced them to move to a new territory, he hadn’t cared. But then, shortly after they had settled at Cougar Creek, he had set eyes on Ember for the first time.
She had been a long way off maturity, a cherub-cheeked young female who would have looked like a teen nearing twenty to any passing humans.
He had watched over her whenever she had been at the creek, and had used his position as pride protector to keep the females away from him during every gathering, and damn, she had grown into a stunning female with supple curves that set him on fire every time he looked at her.
Idiot that he was, he had wanted to give her time to reach maturity before approaching her, figuring she would make an appearance at the creek at some point and he would be there when it happened since Rath kept him up to speed on who was visiting.
He just hadn’t thought her first appearance after maturing would be a damned spring gathering.
Now he was stuck on the side lines, acting as security for the pride while they were caught up in the mating heat and overseeing all the fights for dominance over females that were breaking out.
Females like Ember.
But she was his, and he needed her.
He needed to knock on that door that separated them. He needed her to open it and look at him with soft eyes, ones that told him he wasn’t alone, that she ached for him too, craved him with the same ferocity as he craved her.
And he needed her to open her arms to him, because what he really needed most right now was to rest his head on her shoulder, wrap his arms around her and just hold her until he felt he was back on solid ground, everything put back in place and right again.
Gods, he needed to hold her until this pain went away, just wanted one moment with her without anyone seeing them, or judging him.
He needed her to hold him together, to lend him her strength and give him courage and hope.
Hope that she would be his and hope that his life could only get better from this point.
He scrubbed his hand over his mussed blond hair, did it so much these days he was surprised he had any left, and huffed as he pushed away from her home and forced himself to head towards Rath’s one-and-a-half storey log cabin at the top of the sloping green.
He trudged up the gentle hill, the growing distance between him and Ember tearing at him, and wanted to growl when a dark-haired male emerged from the woods to his right and he caught the male looking towards the river.
Towards Ember’s cabin.
The hunger in the male’s pale golden eyes had Cobalt looking over his shoulder, seeking the one he was looking at.
Ember stood on the deck, dressed in dark blue jeans and a thick black sweater that hugged her curvy figure, her damp ebony hair blending into the wool as it tumbled around her shoulders. She nursed a steaming mug, gently blowing on it, her profile to him and the other male.
A male who was still staring at her.
Cobalt itched with a need to change course and close the distance between him and the male to drive him away and make it clear that Ember belonged to him. The gods only knew how he managed to stay his course, finding the strength to keep moving towards Rath’s cabin instead.
He glanced at the male again before taking the step up onto the deck that stretched the length of the gable end of the log cabin, finding him still watching Ember. Maybe he could just shoo the male away before rousing his brother. It probably wouldn’t take much. A flash of fangs and a growl might be enough.
If it wasn’t?
He was liable to take things further in order to make sure he left, and he wasn’t sure he had the strength to restrain himself and stop himself from going all out on the male. Hell, the state he was in right now, frayed and close to the end of his tether, there was a danger he would skip the flashing fangs and growling and go straight to beating the shit out of the male.
So he forced himself to rap his knuckles on Rath’s door instead.
Because if Ember saw that side of him, if she witnessed the darkness he held within him, she would never want him.
He eased back on the deck and glanced up at the triangular window that sat beneath the eaves of the roof as he waited. A shadow moved across them, and then the door in front of him creaked open to reveal his older brother dressed in only a loosely buttoned pair of faded blue jeans.
Rath rubbed sleep from his grey eyes and yawned.
“What’s up?” his brother murmured quietly and his eyes narrowed on him as he finally lowered his hand to press it against the doorframe. “You look like hell. You alright?”
Cobalt blew out his breath. “Can we talk?”
Rath nodded and glanced back inside, up at the loft bedroom, and then reached around the door. He yawned again as he stepped out onto the deck, a navy fleece dangling from his right hand, and Cobalt moved back a step to give him room.
“Ivy’s still sleeping.” Rath tugged the fleece on and scrubbed his eyes again, and Cobalt envied the bastard all over again.
Not because he had a mate this time, but because he was clearly catching some good sleep, and Cobalt was on the verge of crashing and burning. Maybe after he had unburdened his shoulders, he could hit the sack.
Although, sleeping lost its appeal when he glanced over at the male and found him still staring at Ember. He needed to be around to make sure she didn’t do something foolish, like accepting one of them.
He glared at the male and shivered as a hot caress slid down his spine.
She was looking at him.
Sweet gods, the feel of her gaze on him stoked the fire burning inside him until it was in danger of decimating his restraint.
He twisted at the waist and looked at her, unable to stop himself as her eyes lingered on him.
She glanced away, her focus shifting to the male, and something crossed her face, something he foolishly read as disgust. She turned and disappeared back inside her large cabin.
Rath slumped into one of the wooden chairs to Cobalt’s right, below the kitchen window of his cabin.
“There’s one of only a few females left who haven’t accepted any of the males’ advances,” Rath said dryly as he stretched his legs out in front of him and rested his bare feet on the railing around the deck. “Or maybe it’s her mother who isn’t accepting them.”
Cobalt grunted at that. Her mother had high standards, expected only the best for her child and had been that way since they had lost her father in the Archangel attack.
It counted Cobalt out since he was a total fuck up.
And a failure.
All of his brothers were prospering, their businesses going well, and their lives with them. Rath ran Cougar Creek and had Ivy now. Storm’s security business was flourishing and now he had his fated mate too. Even Flint, his youngest brother, had found his mate and was talking about expanding the wildlife viewing company he ran in the north of Canada.
They all had their mates, a woman they loved and would be with forever if things went to plan.
Cobalt had nothing.
Hitting rock bottom hurt like a bitch, slashed deep into his pride, and he had no one to blame but himself.
“What’s up with you, Cobalt? You’ve been more distant than usual… something’s bothering you, and I’m getting a bit tired of waiting for you to come chat about it.”
He had to smile at Rath for that. It was typical of his brother to give him space, even when he had noticed something was wrong. Cougars were a solitary species, the males liable to fight over the slightest thing, and Rath sticking his nose into Cobalt’s business would have only made him lash out at his brother.
Cobalt parked his ass against the railing next to Rath’s feet, his back to Ember and the river.
“I fucked up,” he muttered, weathering Rath’s curious gaze but refusing to look at him. If he was going to do this, he was doing it his way. He stared at his reflection in the window, into his own grey eyes, and spoke to himself. “Everything was going great… and maybe I got a little cocky… I figured I could handle shit, knew the damned deal was foolish but I thought I had it and it would be a breeze.”
He sighed and leaned more heavily on the railing, so the wood creaked beneath his weight.
“But you didn’t have it,” Rath said softly and Cobalt shook his head. “You can fix it though?”
He swallowed hard and shook his head again. “It’s gone. The whole damn business. Bust. Just like that. It’s all gone fucking south and… and… well, there’s no fixing it.”
“Shit,” Rath muttered and laid his hand on Cobalt’s leg. “That’s… I’m sorry.”
He shrugged that off, because what was there to apologise for? It had been his choice, not an act of the gods or something beyond his control. He had made a mistake and he had paid for it.
“What are you going to do?” Rath eased his feet down and sat up, and Cobalt felt the full force of his brother’s focus settling on him and sensed his need to do something to help him.
A need that Cobalt had been banking on.
“I was thinking,” Cobalt started and looked down at his brother. This was one thing he couldn’t say to his reflection. He needed Rath to see how important this was to him, because he hoped that if his brother saw it, he would give him the green light without hesitation. “Maybe I could stay… here. With Ivy around now, you’re going to need help at the creek… and you’re bound to want to go with her whenever she travels.”
Cobalt had picked up that Ivy wasn’t going to give up her career as a wildlife photographer and Rath wouldn’t let his mate out of his sight. He would travel to the ends of the Earth for her, and that meant leaving the creek unattended for long periods while he travelled with her.
“I can take care of things in your absence. Keep an eye on your territory and the cabins.” Cobalt scrubbed his hand over his tousled hair again and then around the back of his neck as he sweated, waiting for Rath to say something.
His cabin was on the other side of the community, away from the others because of his temperament, the side of him he couldn’t quite control at times.
He hated that part of himself, the way he could be in control one moment and savage the next, attacking relentlessly, unable to stop himself. He hated it because he knew everyone at the pride was aware of it, many of them having witnessed the night it had been born in all of its horrific glory.
They all viewed him as a threat, and some of them had wanted Rath to cast him out of the pride.
Storm had fought to keep him in it, his younger brother the reason that side of Cobalt had emerged. Cobalt had been on the verge of maturity, ninety-nine years old, when Archangel had attacked the pride. Their parents had allowed him to fight because he had been strong enough, and Storm had foolishly fought too, despite being close to a decade from maturing.
When hunters had severely injured Storm, Cobalt had lost it.
Everything had been a blur after that, but Rath had filled him in on what had happened, how savage and dangerous he had turned, and how he had ripped through almost a dozen hunters in order to protect their younger brother.
Since then, everyone had viewed him as fucked up.
Now, he had proven himself worthy of that title. A fuck up of the highest order.
“Sure,” Rath drawled.
Cobalt snapped himself back to his brother, stared at him as he struggled to take that single word in and make sense of it, as if it was utterly foreign to him.
“Sure?” He would have fallen on his ass if he hadn’t been leaning against the railing, the shock that blasted through him on realising his brother was giving his consent, was going to allow him to stay at the creek and help out, sending his mind reeling. “Really?”
“You’re right, and Ivy is keeping me pretty distracted.” A grin teased his brother’s lips, one that said she kept him distracted a lot and he wasn’t complaining. “She wants to shoot spirit bears soon, and I will want to go with her. The thought of leaving the creek unguarded has been bothering me, so maybe this is the perfect solution. You can stay here year-round with me. Some of the cabins are getting old and need more than just repairs now too.”
“I was thinking about adding metal roofing,” Cobalt said and when Rath’s dark eyebrows lifted, he shrugged stiffly. “It’ll be better for when the snow falls, will last longer than timber shingles, and I hear it offers added protection from forest fire embers.”
His focus instantly zoomed to her cabin, his senses stretching to reach her. He needed to feel her. She was as devastating as a wildfire ember, made him burn just as fiercely, and turned his focus to ashes whenever he was around her.
“That’s a good idea.” Rath’s voice cut into his thoughts of her and he forced himself to give his brother the whole of his attention. “It’ll be a lot of work though.”
“I can handle it.” He could.
This was his chance to prove himself to his brother.
Maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was a shot at proving himself to the pride too.
He had never really fitted in at the creek, had never felt it was his home, but now he wanted to make a place for himself here.
He wanted to get his head on straight again and felt in the pit of his soul that this might be something he was good at and wouldn’t mess up because of his problem. He would keep enough distance from Rath, would work on his own parcel of land and help around the creek, and would make a go of it here, where it was quiet and soothing.
“Measure up the cabins, start with our ones, and see what sort of prices you can get. I’ll talk to the other cabin owners, but I’m sure they’ll be onboard.” Rath’s faith in him touched Cobalt, eased the weight on his shoulders and had him eager to get going, and unable to believe he had put off talking to his brother for so long.
He should have known Rath would be understanding about it and would give him the second chance he badly needed.
He looked around the creek as the sun rose, bathing the mountains that surrounded the remote valley in warm light that turned the snow on their peaks gold and seemed to make the rich green of the forests that swathed their bases even more vivid.
He could make a home for himself here, finally settle down and plant some roots. No more wandering. It was time he stopped moving, stopped running from himself and faced things head on.
Ember was here now.
He had waited for her for so long, and sure, this wasn’t how he had planned it, but he was damned if he was going to let the female he had been craving for the past two decades, a female who owned his heart and him completely, go without a fight.
His irises must have changed, glowing golden as thoughts of Ember merged with a need to fight for her, to take down any male who stood between him and her.
“The work thing the only stuff you need to talk about?” Rath eyed him closely.
Cobalt forced himself to nod.
While it felt good unburdening his heart to his brother, getting it all out there, he couldn’t tell Rath the other reason he was feeling volatile, constantly on a razor’s edge. That would mean confessing something he wasn’t ready to tell Rath yet.
Something he had been aware of from the second he had set eyes on her all those years ago.
Ember was his fated mate.