Her cheeks went red again. She gave him a sidelong glance, as if she was seeing something in him for the first time. "So, MacRieve, how long has it been since you were here last?"
He let her steer the conversation back to tamer ground. "Hundreds of years." He'd enjoyed seeing the world and many of its planes, and building a colony had been rewarding. But now that he was back here, the land called to him.
"So this is truly a jog down memory lane."
He nodded. Memories had been arising, surprising him. Aye, he had tragic ones, but he also recollected picnics with his family-he and Munro fishing the river as their parents lazed in the sun, gazing at their boys with utter pride. He remembered their da teaching them to ride, their mam trying to teach them etiquette. There'd been snow fights with them and countless tales around the fire.
There'd been so much laughter.
Before, Will hadn't remembered playing as a boy. Now he recalled idyllic times with Munro-forts, hunts, chases. He understood Munro's words: Reclaim your past.
When Will and Chloe crossed a brook, an offshoot of the Conall River, he found himself telling her, "Munro and I set up a toll on this bridge when we were seven. Clan members paid us in shells, telling us that they were akin to gold. We were convinced we'd become big-time merchants."
She smiled. "Was that before or after the wheel was invented?"
His lips were curling. "Nary a year after."
When they passed a flock of sheep, she cooed at the prancing lambs. "Wolves keep sheep? Doesn't that go against the laws of nature or something? Next you'll tell me fox shifters raise hens."
"Anything goes in the Lore. Look at us," he said, earning another appraising look from her. Was he gaining any ground with her?
Once they reached the base of Mount Conall, she said, "Race you to the top?" Before he could say a word, she charged upward.
He'd been so obsessed with her arse, he feared he'd neglected due attention to her legs and tiny waist. To her slim shoulders and graceful arms. To those flawless breasts currently highlighted by a bright red bra.
As he watched her body moving, so fit and sure, he was abundantly aware that he'd given her the energy she burned today. She was the picture of health, invulnerable to harm-because he'd helped make her strong.
Was there any real difference between how other males provided for their mates, and how Will would? Food versus sex?
His Instinct hadn't differentiated last night, commanding him at once to mate her-and to provide.
With Ruelle, he'd surrendered his seed, fully aware that she would have it from him whether he wanted to give it or not.
With Chloe, he'd had to all but force nourishment on her. Could he get her to take it again today?
Munro had asked if Will could handle the venom bond. If the other option was losing her, then he'd take on her bond like a sword thrust to the chest-with regret, but valiantly. . . .
After giving her a generous head start, he followed, his easy strides eating the distance between them. But at the last moment, he let her win.
When she cast him a triumphant smile, things became very simple.
I feed her; I get days like this.
Atop the peak, he dragged her back against his chest, draping his arms across her shoulders. She allowed it, eventually relaxing against him as they took in the view.
He inhaled deeply of the crisp air, smelling the land and his mate's scent. Like this, he was centered as he hadn't been in memory.
Mayhap he'd never been this centered-since becoming a man.
She shielded her eyes from the sun. "Why'd you stay away so long? It's clear you like it here."
"I dinna remember how much I liked it." Munro thought Will and Chloe belonged here, and as Will gazed out, he suspected his brother might be right. "When I was young, a village flourished near the keep over there." He pointed to the west. "My family were Sentinels here."
"What does that mean?"
"We were tasked with guarding the boundary of the Woods of Murk." He indicated the forest to the south. Just gazing at it made his jaw clench.
"What did you guard the boundary against?"
"It was once populated with all kinds of creatures. Evil ones." Understatement. "We kept those beings in, and kept our kind out."
"So that's why you tensed up yesterday when you gazed out at it. Are they still there?"
"Nay." Hundreds of years ago, his rage at Ruelle still burning hot, he'd yearned to make war on the Woods. Soon he hadn't been the only one. "When those beings got out of control-when Cerunnos were slithering into our lands to steal sheep and maidens-we gained permission from our king to venture into the Woods and hunt them down."
If Will had been molded early in his life, Munro had been fashioned during those grisly battles.
Fashioned by what he'd found in a warren in the woods.
"All of those beings died in the last Accession," he said. "Do you know what that is?"
"I read about it. Every five hundred years or so, fate forces different species to war. Lots of death. Scary stuff. And it's happening now, right? Makes me wish I'd taken up sword-fighting or knife-throwing or something."
She had zero defenses, no Fury killer instincts or Fey speed. She couldn't trace like a vampire or cast witchy spells. All she had was her strew, which she would never bloody use on another.
"Doona fret. You've got yourself a protector." A ruthless one. But on the off chance that something happened to him, he'd need to begin teaching her to defend herself. Plus, intensive training would provide her a distraction, might mitigate the worst of her grief over the Olympics.
"Good to know, protector," she said lightly, almost as if she doubted he could protect her.
Or doubted he would?
"So what did you do once your Sentinel gig was over?" she asked.
"When the Woods grew light once more, Munro and I were freed to leave, to see the world."
"Oh, aye. Every continent, many times over." It hadn't been all travel and exploration. They'd loyally served King Lachlain for centuries. When Lachlain had been lost to the vampires, they'd futilely combed Russia searching for him.
With the loss of their king, many members of the clan had wanted to leave Scotland. Will and Munro had helped them, developing Bheinnrose.
"And now back you've come," she said.
He rested his chin on her head. "Munro expects us to live here."
"Aren't you the chieftain of the Nova Scotia clan?"
"He's far better suited for that job. I could step down. Then this could be our home," he said in a gruff tone, insecure with this. He'd never even asked a woman out on a date, much less to live with him. "We could be content here."
She tensed against him. "MacRieve, you don't have to say that. We don't have to talk about the future. Let's just enjoy the day. I don't want you to say something you'll regret later."
"In other words, you doona want me to make promises I will no' keep."
"Can you understand why I'm gun-shy here?"
She'd accused him of being a liar. Likely because he'd been such a twatting liar with her. Which meant she didn't believe him when he told her he would be her protector, or that they'd live here together.
"I understand your hesitation." And for the first time today, he began to sweat.
Seeming determined to avoid any deeper discussion, she asked, "What about the woods to the north? Are they empty too?"
"Legend holds that the Old Ones live there-primordial Lykae."
"What are they?"
"If Lykae are men who become wolven, primordials are wolves that become human. They never hurt our kind-indeed, there are anecdotes of them coming to our aid. But I have no' scented them here since we arrived," he said with a touch of regret. "They might have died out."
She pointed to a distant loch with a waterfall. "Is that part of Conall too?"
"Aye. Munro and I used to swim there."
"Can we go see it?"
"It's a good ways. Doona want to overtire you."
"Wolf, please," she scoffed. "I'm not the one who's eight thousand years old." She ducked out from under his arms, then took off down the hill, with him right behind her.
When they'd reached the loch, she craned her head to gaze up at the top of the waterfall.
"We jumped off that once." He expected her to express disbelief, because it was seriously high.
Instead, she said, "I want to see the view from up there."
He raised his brows. "It's a treacherous climb."
"For a mortal, right? I thought you were going to show me what I'm capable of."
He waved her forward. "Then by all means. Ladies first."
"Oh, you're a gentleman wolf now?" The sun was beginning to kiss her skin with color. "Or perhaps you just want to ogle my ass?"
"Suggested solely for my ogling pleasure. Off you go." He gave her a swat-and her arse did indeed move for a breathtaking split second afterward.
She shivered in reaction, because his lusty mate liked a good swat. She'd nearly climbed the walls last night. After clearing her throat, she said, "Behave."
And then the show began as she started climbing up the steep incline directly above him-in those tiny shorts. The outer fabric was little more than fluttering mesh, delivering ample glimpses of her arse, but the silky inner lining was like connected panties, taunting him as it covered her sex.
Up higher, the mist from the waterfall wetted their clothes. That lining was now clinging to her cleft.
Gods almighty. He followed her, cockstand pointed due north and showing no signs of waning.
When her foot slipped on a slick rock, he took the opportunity to palm her. Under the pretense of giving her a boost, he shifted his grip. With a tug of his thumb and a swift slice of his foreclaw, he rendered that inner lining crotchless.
"MacRieve! Why do I feel a draft? You cut my shorts?"
He grunted in answer.
"You think you're very sly, don't you?"
Somehow he mustered words: "Rewarded with this view, I know I'm the slyest of wolves."
"You can let go of me now!"
"Doona think I will. It's no' often a man gets a grip of hot, plump heaven in the palm of his hand." He squeezed the flesh in his grasp, delighted when he scented her arousal. "Ah, and there she goes. You like when I play with your arse."
In a strangled tone, she said, "I'd like to not fall."
"When I spanked you last night, your eyes rolled back in your head."
"Oh, yeah, and you didn't get your rocks off on that at all."
"I doona deny it-" Words left him when she raised her knee and he caught a glimpse of the dip at her entrance. Jaw slackened, he began inching a knuckle toward it, rubbing his way to that maddening spot.
"Cut it out! I'm at the top. I'm serious."
With a sigh, he gave her a heft, sending her up and over the edge to land on her feet. He joined her, found her blushing.
"You took advantage of me."
"Of the situation, more like," he replied shamelessly.
She cast him a look that promised comeuppance, then turned to take in the view. He knew she'd see the keep in the distance, the two forests, the river winding through green fields. He was staring only at her.
"This is so amazing." Her expression was awed. "Okay, you're forgiven. For my shorts."
When he stood behind her and rested his hands on her hips, her heart sped up. "You glad you came out with me?"
She turned to him, surprising him by saying, "I've had fun. When you're not mauling my clothes to grope me."
"Still no' hungry though? If you need it, you've only to tell me." At her stern look, he held up his palms. "Nay? Then mayhap after the climb down?"
"It's too high for you to jump, lass."
"I thought you said I was all indestructible and everything."
"I'm no' worried about your body. I'm worried about how you'll react when you see the loch below you. It looks like it's from a bluidy circus high dive."
She put her hand on her hip. "I'm not the veriest pussy, MacRieve. I will be jumping."
"Uh-huh. We'll see."
"And I'll be doing it topless." Before his stunned gaze, she yanked off her sports bra, sling-shooting it at his face. "That's a solid 'aye' on the bra removal."
Those breasts kissed by sun . . . "Woman! My mouth waters-"
But she'd already whirled around, charged for the edge, then leapt with an excited squeal.
He put her bra between his teeth and dove in behind her, the quicker to reach her.
Chloe hit the water with air-wrenching force, but she recovered easily, kicking toward the surface with a laugh.
Had she ever felt this alive? She'd pushed her body this morning, covering miles of challenging terrain. Bliss in itself. Add in a playful MacRieve . . .
He'd been opening up to her, showing his charming side-and his domineering one. It was official: she liked one as much as the other.
When she reached the surface, he was waiting for her.
"You dropped this." He held up her top with a darkening expression.
Shocking him had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Now she was topless with an immortal male who looked like he wanted to eat her for dinner.
In fact, that was what she would be doing when they had sex again.
She held out her hand. "Gimme, MacRieve."
He tossed her bra on the shore. "Oh, I think no'." There was a threatening undertone to his voice, a subtext of Your ass is mine.
She swallowed. No, she didn't spook easily in most situations. But this was a sexual situation; sex had been a mixed bag for her. So she began swimming backward away from him. He steadily pursued. She didn't think he would hurt her, but then, she'd never had a wicked wolf eyeing her like he was about to rail her into next week. At the thought, her nipples got even harder.
His gaze dipped. He could see them! She dove away from him, started swimming in earnest.