Barbarian's Mate(8)

By: Ruby Dixon

“Aren’t you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” I tease her as she hands me my fur wraps and helps me into them. “Here I thought you’d be yawning this morning.”

Tiffany giggles. Giggles. Oh my God. Practical, can-do Tiffany is giggling like a schoolgirl at my teasing. “Where did you sleep?” she asks.

“Oh, I just found a quiet spot in the back and curled up,” I tell her. “Didn’t want to bother anyone.”

“Silly. You know you could have come back to the cave.”

And listened to sex noises all night as they tried (and failed) at being quiet? Gosh, no thanks. Especially not with my own cootie being all hormonal. “Didn’t seem like a good idea.”

She helps me tie the strap of my backpack under my breasts and then pauses. “You’re…okay with this, aren’t you, Jo?” Her cootie-blue eyes, so brilliant in her pretty brown face, look at me imploringly. “I don’t want anything to come between us as friends.”

My poor heart nearly breaks all over again. “Don’t be silly, Tiff. I love you, and I’m happy for you and Salukh. You’re going to have a family and you have a mate that loves you. How can I not be beside myself with joy?”

“Because it’s been just us for a while, and now I feel like I’m leaving you behind.” She gives me a crooked little smile. “You know you can live with us in the new cave, right? I’m sure Salukh won’t mind.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I tell her brightly. “Something will shake itself out.” And again, I resist the urge to look around for Haeden. Living with him would be a nightmare, I tell myself, even as I squeeze my stupid thighs tightly together. He’s grumpiness personified.

Tiffany casts me another worried look, so I hug her. She doesn’t need to worry about me. She’s got enough on her plate. I squeeze her hand and then pull her toward the front of the cave. “Let’s find our snowshoes and get going. I can’t wait to see everyone at the other cave again.”

She laughs but allows me to tug her along. “You just saw them a few days ago, silly.”

“Yes, but they’ve got babies, and babies seem to grow up overnight.” Plus, I’ve totally got babies on the brain. Always have. I love their sweet scent, the way they clutch at you like you’re the most important thing in the world, the trust in their eyes. I’ve wanted a baby of my own so badly, because I want to do right by my child. I want it to grow up in a world of love where parents never disappear, people only touch you with kindness, and there’s nothing but joy and welcome and love at home.

I want my child to have what I never had.

And I don’t know if my child will get that if Haeden is the father. I don’t know if I can be mated to him without losing it. He’s everything I’ve never wanted. I thought my cootie would pick a mate that would be kind, and gentle, and caring. Instead, I get the sa-khui Oscar the Grouch, minus the garbage can.

As if my thoughts have summoned him, we head to the front of the cave and Haeden is there, waiting next to Salukh. His gaze immediately goes to me and he drops the snowshoes he was holding and storms away into the snow.

For some reason, I feel a pang of regret. I mean, I also feel a pang of lust deep between my thighs (thanks, cootie) and my chest starts to thrum quietly with resonance, but I also feel…sad.

Tiffany brightens at the sight of Salukh and practically skips over to him, despite the heavy pack on her back. I follow after her, picking up the discarded snowshoes that Haeden has abandoned. They’re mine.

He was waiting for me.

I don’t know how that makes me feel.

I move next to Tiffany and sit down on a rock beside her so we can put on our snowshoes. There’s several others waiting at the front of the cave, and behind us I can hear Kira talking with Aehako, the baby crying. Farli’s back there too, chattering up a storm, and ahead are Taushen, Hassen, and if I peer out hard into the gray day, I can barely make out Haeden’s retreating back.

“Is Haeden leaving?” I ask.

“Mmm,” Salukh says, nodding. He kneels down and begins to strap Tiffany’s snowshoes to her boot for her, like the sweetheart that he is. “He says he is not in the mood for company and will scout ahead.”

“Oh.” My cootie doesn’t like this and gives a disappointed little purr, just as Salukh breaks one of Tiffany’s leather shoe straps. He gets up and walks away to get a new one, and as he does, thankfully, my cootie gets over the fact that Haeden’s not here and shuts up.