Tristan has agreed to bond with Ushna but there is still much to do and returning to Tribe Enkidu puts everyone on edge. Tristan is being stalked like prey all the while fighting depression as he mourns the loss of Nikita and enduring a battle of wills with the Elder Council over his birthright. The pleading of his adoptive daughter only adds still more stress to the situation.
Stumbling onto a secret prison while searching for Ushna leads Tristan to risk everything to free a lost God. But breaking the tie to his Flame has more repercussions than Tristan knew and the assistance of a forgotten Goddess and a centuries old lover may not be enough to save him.
I asked Lexi to once again brave the grounds of Ushna and Tristan’s home and get them to talk to us. She asked Ushna to tell us what romance means to him. I have to say what she found out was beautiful. Read and enjoy!
Ushna owed me something on what romance meant to him, but he’d been dodging my phone calls for a couple of weeks. Taking matters into my own hands, I drove over to the ranch to have a face to face. Let him try to outrun me then… okay maybe he could without breaking a sweat, but I was hedging my bets that I could sweet talk him into relenting. I understood things were hectic for him. There was only a couple of weeks before the pups were born and events had been crazy. Surely this would be a topic to lighten the mood, perhaps it would give him or Tristan a reason to smile.
After the guards at the gate assured me that, no, they didn’t need to frisk me—I asked three times just to make sure, you know—I drove up to the house. No one answered the front door, probably because I didn’t knock, and I went in search of my wayward Lycan cowboy. When I stepped into the kitchen, I stared for a moment taking everything in. Ushna wore a frilly apron and was covered in flour. Actually, the whole kitchen was decorated in the white powder, as if he’d waved around a five pound bag creating abstract art—or something.
“What are you doing?”
I didn’t mean to startle Ushna but he was so engrossed in his task he didn’t hear me enter the room. He spun around, eyes slightly wide and wild until he realized it was me.
“Lexi.” He grunted my name more than enunciated. You’d think I was a pesky little sister he couldn’t get rid of with the way he turned back to what he was doing, ignoring me. He wouldn’t get rid of me that easily.
“Don’t ‘Lexi‘ me. You were supposed to sit down and talk about romance and what it means to you. Give those with inquiring minds some juicy tidbits.” I place my purse on the table and rolled up the sleeves to my blouse.
“I don’t see why anyone cares. There are a hundred romantic gestures and a hundred things some find dreamy whiles others do not. Most of the time, something’s considered romantic because they’ve never experienced or heard of it. Millions of people give flowers and candy on Valentine’s Day, after the first couple of times it’s not unique. What if I want to keep mine a secret? I want my gestures to remain special and for Tristan only.” Ushna cut the rolled dough at regular intervals and my mouth watered. Homemade cinnamon rolls were my absolute favorite. I would definitely be sticking around to snag one or four for myself.
“Don’t be stingy. Share and help someone out. Everybody is different. You’re a Lycan. Do y’all have something you do differently? Maybe a secret tactic to wooing a mate? Twin Flames are easy. Generalize if you want, but you gotta give us something.” I began wiping down the counters Ushna wasn’t using. How did he get flour on the top cabinets?
Ushna snorted. He almost sounded like Tristan. “Twin Flames aren’t sure things. I can’t believe you said that. They have to work at their relationship, too. It’s not always starry eyes and roses. And no, there aren’t romantic overtures practiced only by Lycans. Well, there was the time Tristan brought me a dead rabbit. I thought it was romantic. There are those who won’t agree with me.”
Carefully arranging the rolls on the cookie sheet, Ushna liberally sprinkled the top with a butter, brown sugar, and pecan mixture before popping the tray in the oven. Together, we finished wiping down the counters and some cabinets. I filled the sink with hot water and dish soap.
“You know what I find romantic?” Ushna grabbed a clean dishtowel and came to stand next to me at the sink. “When Tristan asked me if I wanted to buy this ranch with him.” I gave him an incredulous look and he grinned sheepishly. “I wanted to settle somewhere with Tristan and even though were weren’t romantically involved at the time, I loved him deeply. Tristan had seen what I wanted and endeavored to give me what I desired. Sure he’s done things others would find romantic. Feeding me while he watched me with eyes that proclaimed I was best thing since sliced bread. That was fucking sexy. But investing in this place with me, building a home together because he wanted to make me happy—gestures like that are what I find romantic.”
I scrubbed the bowl thinking. “So what romance means to you is something like finding what your love wants and giving it to them?”
“You’re like a dog with its favorite bone.” Ushna untied the apron and hung it inside the pantry. “Let me see if I can explain it.” He shrugged his shoulders as if he felt uncomfortable and began to dry dishes. “Romance is the little things. The things your partner doesn’t ask for. Caring for their needs. Like when Tristan knows I didn’t have time to stop and eat. He’ll track me down with a bagged lunch that he took the time to make for me. It’s something he does to take care of me. Sometimes I’ll say something in passing, like I wish I had a candy bar. A couple hours later he’ll shove one in my pocket when I know we didn’t have any on the ranch. He made a special trip into town over something frivolous, but he put a smile on my face, and earned himself a hellova kiss. It’s finding sticky a note on the bathroom mirror that simply says—Good morning, lover—when he rises before I do.”
I pulled the plug in the sink. “What do you do for him?”
His smile was both soft and wistful with an edge of mischievous. “Little things like that. Making sure his ‘secret’ stash of cherries and cheese puffs are always stocked. Giving him foot rubs even when my own hands are aching. He loves pens so I always bring back a different one when I come back from town. But I happen to believe that the most romantic gestures are the ones he doesn’t know anything about.”
We finished tidying the kitchen in silence. He was obviously lost in thought as he loaded the coffeemaker and started a new pot. The cinnamon rolls made the kitchen smell heavenly. While we waited for the pot to brew I turned over his last statement. Why would he think the most romantic overture was one the recipient didn’t know of? Wasn’t the whole point to reap the rewards for doing something special?
The oven timer dinged and Ushna pulled out the cookie sheet and placed it on the cooling rack. He was pouring us a cup of coffee when Tristan appeared at the doorway, his nose lifted in the air, and he was practically drooling all over himself.
Then he whimpered, “Marjan’s baking.”
I glanced to Ushna, waiting for him to correct Tristan. But he gave me a minute shake of his head, smiling over the rim of his coffee. Tristan moved—lumbered—across the floor his hands rubbing his huge belly. Ushna lifted an arm and Tristan leaned against him smacking his lips as he eyed the tray of hot cinnamon rolls.
“How was the trip? Everything’s settled at the business?” Tristan only hummed an affirmation at Ushna’s question. I glanced away when he tilted his head for a kiss. The moment was too intimate to be spied on. My eyes watered knowing Ushna’s romantic overture and understanding what he’d said earlier. The most romantic gestures are the ones he doesn’t know anything about.
I agreed. That was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen.
Then I realized I had blackmail material…
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Ushna was out of the car and greeting his parents before I unbuckled the seatbelt. Hami wasn’t as tall as his son but he was wide, very wide, barrel-chested with a set of deltoids on him the size of small children. His dark hair was cut above the ears and I’d never seen the man without at least three days growth of facial hair. It looked good on him. That kind of scruff made me resemble a bum.
Donya was tall and lean, one of those women who had a natural sway when she walked. Her blue-black hair fell to her waist in thick glossy waves. Her skin was a deep almond, darker than her husband’s or son’s, and her bright, emerald-green eyes were large and expressive.
They both greeted Ushna with festive exuberance, and why not? I’d kept him away from them for a very long time. I observed them for a moment over the hood of the SUV. Hami picked his son up in a bear hug, laughing loud and boisterous. Donya took his face between her palms as she gazed deeply into his bi-colored eyes—eyes that were forever changed by me. At that thought, I wondered how they truly perceived me. My stomach rolled with anxiety-induced queasiness.
With all the grace of someone my size, I made my way into the house, leaving Ushna to his family reunion. I had hoped we wouldn’t see them until after the children were born. I’d entered the home stretch of my pregnancy. Even with the ring of illusion, I had a hard time hiding my condition. Early in my pregnancy, Gregori had fashioned a ring of magic, creating the illusion that hid my continually growing stomach and constructed a normal appearance.
A pregnant male wasn’t something we wanted to explain to humans. With the looming threat of assassination, if my identity was discovered, we thought it best to continue to keep my birthright a secret until after the children were born. So I’d continue to wear the illusion even though the ring wasn’t much help now. The giveaway was in the walk and the way I stood. People could see there was something different by how I held my body and it couldn’t be helped. I was able to hurry, in spurts, and then I lumbered like an elephant—very National Geographic.
Neesie followed me into the kitchen. She was dressed differently than what I’d become accustomed to. Gone were the combat boots, black jeans, and white tees. She wore a pale blue silk blouse, a pinstriped pencil skirt, and knee-high black stiletto boots. She appeared fierce in a whole new way.
“Why didn’t you wait and greet Ushna’s parents?” she asked.
With a plate in hand, I inspected the cold cuts tray that sat on the kitchen counter. I was starved and wanted something quick to eat before everyone came in. When I didn’t answer Neesie, she took the plate from me and started placing fresh vegetables on it.
“I thought I’d give them some time to catch up,” I finally replied. It wasn’t a complete lie. “They haven’t had their son to themselves in quite some time. They don’t need me hanging out in the background.”
Neesie pinned me with her golden-brown gaze. “That is such bullshit and you know it. What’s the real issue?”
I quirked a smile at her. “You know I love ya?”
“Yes, and you’re the one who called me for dating advice because you suck at subtle. Your ‘hey moron, get your hands off my sister‘ ranked right up there.”
“I can’t help it if Mr. Octopus Arms was oblivious to his audience.”
“Go ahead and keep playing that song because I know you still refer to him as Lonnie Fucking-Fowler. Before you walked into the house, your face turned green and you practically sprinted in here.”
“Ahh, stampede!” I gave mock crowd screams. Neesie was not impressed.
“Spill, jackass.” She shoved a full plate into my hands and a chair under my ass. Neesie glared at me but her expression was filled with concern.
“Fine, you tyrant. I wanted to make a good impression. I wanted to be able to show them that I am a strong partner and worthy of their son’s love and devotion. But right now I’m huge, and miserable, and swollen, and hungry. Why did you give me carrots? You know I hate carrots. You’re trying to torture me, aren’t you? I’m an elephant, not a rabbit. I get like peanuts or something, not Bugs Bunny hand-me-downs.” I threw the carrot at my cackling sister. The woman was not remorseful.
I threw another carrot at Neesie before turning to see who called for me. I swallowed a curse as I faced Donya. She stood in the doorway, her large green eyes soft and liquid as she searched my expression.
“Ma’am?” Embarrassingly, my voice cracked like I was fourteen years old.
“How can we not be proud of you, son?” Donya crossed the room in a smooth glide and gently took me in her arms. “We’ve always been proud of you, Tristan, don’t ever believe differently.” Tentatively I embraced her in return and ignored Neesie’s sniffles.
Lexi has always been an avid reader, and at a young age started reading (secretly) her mother’s romances (the ones she was told not to touch). She was the only teenager she knew of who would be grounded from reading. Later, with a pencil and a note book, she wrote her own stories and shared them with friends because she loved to see their reactions. A Texas transplant, Lexi now kicks her boots up in the Midwest with her Yankee husband and her eighty-pound puppies named after vacuum cleaners.
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