Because I canna. Because I'm no' right.
As he stood to pace, he remembered Mam's last words more clearly. She hadn't said, "Never with a succubus." She'd said, "Never with one like her."
Like Ruelle. A sick, child-molesting fiend.
His breath left him in a rush. Chloe was nothing like Ruelle, but he'd treated her as if she were. He'd mistreated her, heaping insults on her, lying to her. And then he'd marveled when she was hesitant about a future with him.
Will had been trying to get revenge on a goddamned dead woman by hurting his mate!
As if on a movie reel, he replayed all his abuse. The day of the wall alone . . . he'd called her a seed-feeder, telling her she was trash. He'd terrified her with vicious threats, humiliating her in front of enemies.
The days to come had brought no improvement. Will had told her she probably craved getting gang-raped by Pravus males. He'd all but told her she wasn't good enough to have his bairns. He'd withheld his claiming bite, reasoning that enough would suffice for her-not his all, but enough.
He'd vomited after taking her virginity.
And she'd borne it all, even giving him yesterday. Which he'd then ruined. Slaoightear. Villain. As all his actions sank in, he stood numb, incapable of moving.
Wrong. Everything's wrong. All my fault.
Sorrow, guilt, horror, hatred-all warred within him. The first three for how he'd treated Chloe, the last toward Ruelle.
And toward himself. As Will gazed at Chloe, his vision blurred.
I treated my innocent mate as Ruelle treated me. At the thought, he bashed his fists against his head, his face twisting. What is wrong with me? Sick, sick!
His beast tried to rise, to shield Will from pain. Yet Will wanted the agony, needed it.
Babes with Chloe? A new family between them? They'd figure it out.
All my fault. He chuffed, pulling at his hair. He wished Chloe would wake to hit him, wished she'd sink another shard into him.
Get right for her. Chloe was a fighter, scrapping for everything she'd ever gotten in life-Will would do no less for her.
Bury your past, or it'll bury you. He was ready to; he just didn't know how.
His Instinct urged: -Wreak your vengeance upon those who deserve it.-
How? Ruelle was long dead. Her memory alone lived on. And it was driving a wedge between him and his mate. Driving him nigh insane for hundreds of years.
Bury, bury, burn your past. . . .
One idea emerged from his chaotic thoughts. He strode to the line of windows facing south, staring out at the blustery Woods of Murk.
Burn your past, or it'll burn you. There was something he could do to tear down that memory.
-Go there.- his Instinct commanded. Suddenly, he was as desperate to breach that forest as he had been in his youth. He would leave Chloe snug in their bed, warm and safe within the impervious keep of his ancestors.
He'd lived for more than three hundred thousand days; he felt like his entire future rested on what the next few minutes would bring.
-The answer lies within the forest. GO!- He jerked at the Instinct's loudness.
He pressed a kiss against Chloe's hair, then turned to leave. At the doorway, he gazed back at his mate.
Some unknown emotion threatened to engulf him. It was primal and raw, disquieting him so much his beast stirred once more, protectively.
With a low growl, Will charged out into the storm. Running to an outbuilding, he ransacked it for supplies, then sprinted toward the Woods. The path to his destination was overgrown, but he would never forget the way.
Once Chloe woke, he wanted to greet her as a new man. One who could accept her strew, the venom bond, everything about her. As he ran, he identified that unknown emotion, owning it.
He imagined himself made whole, refashioned into a mate who could cherish her fully, giving her bairns and love.
He felt frenzied with the need to give her these things. With each step closer to his destination, his beast fought to rise. Will struggled to keep it leashed, to think clearly, to reason.
As the storm strengthened, shadows closed in on him, leaves swirling, trees shuddering. The winds howled, disrupting Will's hearing and sense of smell. Gusts brought confusing scents all the way from the sea.
Scents that would forever remind Will of that night.
His worry that he'd lost Chloe was so sharp, it was like pain coursing through his body. Will squinted through the tempest as he ran. He could make out the object of his hatred, the one he'd soon destroy. . . .
Something's wrong with me.
When Chloe woke she felt weak, as if she had the flu-with nausea, aches, and chills.
Her bones felt like they were breaking. Deep in her womb, she suffered what felt like menstrual pain from hell.
She roused and opened her eyes, gazing around the room for MacRieve, but he was gone. She recalled him sitting beside her earlier. She'd been half-awake, irritated that each of his words had sounded like a gong in her ears, worsening her splitting headache.
Hadn't he wanted to tell her something? She remembered peeking over from the bed to watch him standing at the window, his broad shoulders tense. She'd wanted to ask him what was wrong, but she'd drifted off again.
Chloe had dreamed that she told him she loved him, but he refused to answer her. He wouldn't look at her face for so many centuries that she turned invisible. . . .
Dragging herself to her feet, she crossed to the same spot where he'd stood, surveying that same forest to the south. When they'd first arrived, he'd gazed out in that direction, clenching his fists, tension radiating from him.
Now a funnel of smoke billowed from the treetops, deep within the Woods of Murk.
A fire? Was MacRieve there? The soughing winds carried that smoke and even embers against Conall's indifferent walls. Foreboding suffused her, a sense that he was in danger.
Tamping down her nausea, she pulled on jeans, a shirt, and shoes, then labored down the stairs. Each step jarred the bones in her legs, sending new waves of pain.
But she had to reach him. Panic overwhelmed her illness, giving her enough strength to cross the expanse of windswept fields. Dusk was deepening when she reached the boundary of the woods.
To journey within them? With night approaching?
That sense of foreboding only strengthened, until she could feel it in her aching bones. Fearing for MacRieve, she trudged on, following the smoke.
She hadn't made it the length of a soccer field before she had to lean against a trunk, resting her legs and catching her breath. She pushed on, the scent of smoke growing stronger and stronger. The acrid smell burned her nose and throat.
By the time she was close enough to hear the crackle of fire, the trees had thinned. Was there a clearing ahead? She slowed, even more cautious-
The scene before her took her breath away.
A structure was burning. MacRieve stood in the firelight, staring at the flames. Ash streaked across his cheeks. At his feet was an orange can that read PETROL. He'd started this fire?
Apparently he hadn't scented her with the winds gusting toward her.
She watched as he twisted around to slash his claws through a nearby tree, then another. He gave a crazed roar, tearing at his hair. His eyes were blue-but the beast hadn't risen. This was just MacRieve, the man, seeming to go insane.
What was happening? What was this place? She stood stunned, unable to react.
When he turned back to his work, firelight reflected in his eyes. The color of ice and flame mixing. And she thought they . . . glistened with tears.
Yes, tracks coursed down through the soot on his face.
Before she could stop him, he charged toward the building, battering a fiery wall with his fists-as if it wasn't burning fast enough. Flames curled around his arms. He didn't seem to notice them.
"MacRieve!" She rushed forward. "Your shirt's on fire!"
He whipped his head around. "Why've you come here, Chloe?" Without interest, he peeled his shirt from his blistered skin, tossing it away. Then his expression tightened. "How long have you been there?"
Long enough to see his agony, to understand that this was the root of his pain-she just didn't know why. "Not long."
"You should no' be here. I have to take you back." His body was quaking.
So was hers. Though she felt like her legs wouldn't carry her much longer, she said, "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what this is."
"Your face is deathly pale. You should be back at the keep."
"I draw the line here, MacRieve. Tell me what I want to know, or we end whatever is between us."
He gazed in the direction of Conall. "I'll tell you back home."
"Bullshit. You'll tell me now."
"If I do, will you let me take you back?"
She nodded, knowing she was finally going to learn his secrets. He was ready to tell her; did she have the strength to hear him out? She moved out of the path of the smoke, picking her way to one of the newly felled trees. Each step brought splintering pain.
When she sat on the trunk, he began to pace in front of her. He parted his lips to speak, then closed them, repeating this again and again.
"Please, MacRieve," she murmured.
He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing. At last, he began: "We were forbidden to go into these woods. But I went on a dare, and I caught the attention of a succubus who lived in this cottage. Her name was Ruelle." He spat the word, as if it was foul in his mouth. "She took me to her bed."
"A succubus . . . raped you?"
He swung a fist at the closest tree. "Doona put it like that!"
She sucked in a breath at his reaction. "Then did a succubus use her chemicals on you?"
A tight nod. "I knew it was happening, knew what she was. I thought I loved her. When she told me she was my mate, I believed her." Had his breath begun whistling in his chest again? "I was . . . still a lad."
He didn't meet her gaze when he muttered his answer.
Nine. Dear God. Nine?
"She had to use her strew on me. At my age, it was too . . . much. I'd feel like I was suffocating, like I was dying." His chest had started heaving, as if he was suffocating even now. "I learned later that she could've killed me by drawing too deep. Mortal men barely survive a taking, and I was no' grown. But my beast rose up to safeguard me each time."
Chloe was dumbstruck. He'd been just a little boy.
Still avoiding her gaze, he said, "I cried the first time. And the second, and so on . . . But the praise and the gifts kept me coming back. No' to mention her venom bond. She'd use the pain to punish me sometimes."
Chloe's eyes watered, but she fought not to spill tears for him, knowing he would hate that. The male I love was abused like this.
Between harsh breaths, he continued, "At that age, Lykae are learning to control their beasts. My family and members of my clan were teaching me to, but it rose every time I lay with Ruelle, any progress undone. After four years with her, I could no' imagine sex without my beast. It was all I knew. When it ended with Ruelle at last, I was no' . . . right. I dinna care to lie with another until I was in my forties. By then, the mold had fixed, and I knew I would be forever twisted."
She wanted to scream that he wasn't twisted, that he was hers, and that she wanted him so badly. This was the net she hadn't been able to see!
But she knew this was a precarious time for him. In as steady a tone as she could manage, she asked, "What happened to her? How were you freed of her venom?"
How could you ever even contemplate accepting mine? He'd been punished with it.
When he hesitated again-as if what he was about to tell her would prove even worse-a memory tugged at Chloe's consciousness. Hadn't Ronan said the twins were orphaned at thirteen? Four years with Ruelle would put him at that age.
"Ruelle had barred me from this place for days, and her venom hit me hard. I was sneaking out to go to her when my mother caught me. Gods, Mam could be fierce. She and my father squired me inside, and I confessed all." He ran his hand down his face, smearing more ash over it. "As if it was yesterday, I can remember how mystified I was by their disgust. I'd believed Ruelle was fated to me, that I was only doing as nature intended." He glanced at Chloe, then quickly away.
MacRieve was ashamed of this to this day.
"When my parents talked about killing her, I was so confused. My da planned to set off in the morn to end Ruelle. But like I said, my mam was fierce, impulsive too. She could no' stand the pain I was in, so she slipped away into a blizzard. She came here."
Chloe could tell where this was leading.
"Munro, Da, and I followed, but we were too late. Ruelle was no' alone. To my bewilderment, she had another lover. A young vampire. He slew my mother."
"Oh, God, MacRieve, I'm so sorry."
Staring past her, he said, "Da beheaded the vampire and Ruelle. One day later, my father followed his mate."
She raised a tremulous hand to her forehead. She almost wished she had food in her stomach to vomit.
"On the last night of their lives, my parents must have thought me weak-willed, spineless. And I was. I got both of them killed. My mam was pregnant with a little girl." Another drop streaked down his face. "My entire family was destroyed because of my weakness."
"You weren't weak! You were still a boy! Blame Ruelle, not yourself. That bitch groomed you. I wish she was still alive-so I could behead her myself!" By the way he was looking at her eyes, she knew they were glowing with emotion. "MacRieve, you were so young."
"Mayhap then. But in the ensuing years, I grieved Ruelle's death nearly as much as my mother's." He peered hard at the ground as he rasped, "I knew it was wrong to do so, despised myself for it for so many years. Self-hatred like you canna imagine. It took me centuries, but eventually I accepted my lot in life. I'd never be right sexually. I'd never sleep with the same female twice. I'd never know a woman without the beast rising. So I just bided my time, waiting for another good war. War was comfortable for me. On the battlefield, everyone was happy to see my beast-everyone except the enemy. I was . . . managing."
"Then you were captured by the Order," she said in a deadened voice. "You were tortured. Vivisected."