Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: One
Title: Your Footprints On My Heart
The wind drove the storm up behind them, sending leaves, small branches, and rubble against the car and into their path. Isla pulled into the driveway, got the baby out of the car-seat and went to the door, a low growl rumbling in her throat as she put her key in the knob.
A voice on the exterior stairs said, “It’s okay. Just me.”
She put the baby into the playpen just inside the door. stepped back outside, and looked up into the stairwell. “I’m tired and hungry but if you’re here to take the child, I’ll put you in the ground beside the other two who tried it.”
“I’m sure you would,” he said, careful to remain still and non-threatening.
“Can we do this inside where it’s warmer?”
He shook his head. “You know we can’t. Just like you know you can’t raise your brother Chansen’s bastard pup without pack sanction.”
Her hands balled into fists and the growl returned.
He held his ground but gently. “I’ll be here when you’re ready to talk.”
She went to the car and began unloading the groceries.
He joined her, carrying the bags from the car to the doorjamb, setting them on the pavement in front of the threshold.
She grunted her thanks, moved everything inside, and relocated the still sleeping baby to the cradle beside the fireplace. Once the food was put away, she prepped the flank steak and put it on the stove. The scent of warm meat filled the house, mingling with the sweet heady chill of oncoming rain.
Kneeling beside the baby, she peered into the cradle and ruffled the dark hair. What was she doing? She’d spent forty years living on the edge of pack law, conforming only as much as necessary to fulfill her duties and secure her affiliation. If she kept this child, and her heart could do no other, she’d no longer be allowed to live anonymously in the fringes.
Getting up, she slid into a sweater and opened the door. “Are you here on behalf of the council?”
“No. This is a purely personal matter.”
“You’ve been protected from pack politics while your brothers were in power but their downfall puts you at risk for public censure and disgrace. The council will keep sending members after the pup unless you give him up or provide him a sanctioned family.”
Give up her independence or her nephew. Those were the choices she’d been struggling with all week. Wheaten’s fall had upset but not surprised her. Chansen’s subsequent disclosure that he’d been engaged in a secret affair had surprised but not upset her, until he mentioned the resulting pup who’d been abandoned by his mysterious mother.
He came out of the shadowed stairwell. “I know you’re not going to give up the pup. I understand. But that means you need to take a mate. Quickly. One of your own choosing. Before you're overpowered by one or the council appoints one.”
She let her eyes take him in, though she knew the landscape well. Lanky frame. Well-muscled. Ruddy curls. Amber eyes. The scar across his chin she’d put there years ago. He was offering himself up, though he hadn’t yet said in so many words. “As you say, with my bloodline, I can’t choose just anyone.”
“And with my seat on the council, I can’t offer myself without seeming suspect.”
She opened the door and said, “Come in.”
He closed on her but paused on the threshold. “I won’t hold you to many traditions but this one is one.”
Her fingers closed around his wrist, the knuckles going white. “Please, just come inside.”
He drew his hand through hers until their fingers laced. “I would if this was just about securing the council’s interests but this is a moment I want to savor, a memory I want to carry with me always.”
Her hand gripped his so tightly had he been a mere man, he’d have cried out in pain. “Jackson, of the Five Forests, I greet you in the name of the pack, my family, and myself. I invite you to eat at my table, sleep at my hearth, and raise my whelps.”
He surprised her by ushering her into the house ahead of him and surprised her again by greeting her as a wolf once they crossed the threshold, nuzzling her cheek instead of kissing her.
She’d resisted him, and his wolf, so long that she wasn’t sure how to relent, even now, when she was pretty sure she wanted to. “Obviously I don’t know how to do this relationship thing but you are the only person I’d try it with.”
He traced his scar. “Sweetheart, we’ve been carrying on since the day we met. Just took something serious to nudge us toward the inevitable commitment.”
She let herself enjoy the moment. “Just be sure you make it clear to the council that I fought you every breath of the way. How about you tuck the baby into bed and then I’ll add another scar or two to your scruffy face to lend credence to the story.”
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