His arms tightened around her, and his breath stirred her drying hair. “Can I take you home now?”
Home was with him. Wherever he wanted her to be. “Yes.”
Empaths and funerals were a miserable combination, which made Carmen’s presence a blessing.
Ben’s service had been short—at Patrick’s request—but Alec and Carmen’s arrival had given the exhausted mourners a place to gather and grieve. It took a few phone calls and a Dixie John’s catering miracle, but eventually Kat found herself enthroned on one of Alec and Carmen’s newly upholstered couches.
Long sleeves covered the thick bandages around her wrists. A plate full of food balanced on her lap, filled with finger foods that she obediently nibbled every time Andrew looked her way.
Carmen took it away finally. “You can tell him I said not eating was okay right now.”
“He’s worried.” Which was an understatement. She wouldn’t be surprised if he’d spent the last two nights watching her sleep. “I’m sure my appetite will come back eventually.”
Carmen’s dark eyes held shadows of concern. “I want to get Callum to come back here for a while.
You and Julio both could use…someone to talk to.”
Protesting that she wasn’t the one who’d been tortured would do no good. Not with Carmen—who knew, like only another empath could know, how little it mattered. “Callum was due another visit anyway.
At the end of February.”
“I think I’ll call him and see if he can make the trip early.”
“For Julio, if you want.” Kat found Andrew in the crowd, and smiled when she caught him sneaking a look at her. She didn’t need Callum. Not because she wasn’t broken, but because she had someone to talk to. Someone who could make her feel safe until she climbed back to her feet. “I’m not going to be here, anyway,” she added. “The Alpha’s private jet is waiting to bring us to Wyoming before my cousin actually self-destructs. I’ll be lucky if he lets me out of his sight before Nick has her baby.”
“He’s worried about her,” Carmen said. “Maybe having you there, safe and sound, will set his mind at ease.”
“I know.” Reaching out, Kat curled her hand around Carmen’s. “Is Julio okay?”
“You know better than anyone what he went through.” She took a deep breath. “No, he’s not okay. But he will be.”
“He’s strong,” she whispered. “I know that now too.”
Carmen looked over to where Julio stood in quiet conversation with Alec. “He’s strong, but sometimes I think maybe that’s harder. It makes him likelier to blame himself.”
“I know. I’m afraid Patrick will do the same.”
“He lost his brother,” she allowed. “I don’t think it’s possible not to feel responsible for that. But we find ways to deal with tragedy, and people to help.”
“At least we have a strong community. It’s better than being alone.”
“Absolutely.” Carmen squeezed her hand. “Give everyone on the ranch a hug and a kiss from me, okay?”
Kat opened her mouth to answer, but Carmen’s gaze had jumped to Alec, who was weaving his way through the scattered crowd. He seemed uncomfortable in his crisp black suit, but Kat had to admit he looked good.
Judging by the way Carmen’s eyes softened, she agreed. “Does anyone need anything?” she asked, touching his sleeve.
Alec nodded toward Andrew. “He needs to round Kat up and get out of here before Derek calls me again. I think we’ve reached the end of his patience.”
They’d probably reached it two days ago, when Derek had gotten Kat’s greatly sanitized version of the past few weeks. The explosion she’d expected had come all right, and she hadn’t even told him the worst bits.
Maybe she should have, in retrospect. Admitted everything before she was within arm’s reach and he could actually shake her to see if she’d rattle.
Oh well. Too late now. Kat released Carmen’s hand and rose. “Do me a favor, Alec?”
“What’s that, kiddo?”
“Keep an eye on Patrick? Just for the next few days…” Long enough for him to remember he had a community, even if it wasn’t one he’d spent much time in.
Alec glanced to Carmen, who smiled gently. “Patrick isn’t alone,” she said finally. “He knows.”
It was all Kat could ask for, and it would have to do. For now. After murmuring her goodbyes, she picked a path through the gathering and found her way to Andrew’s side. “Alec says it’s time to face the music.”
“So I hear.” He dropped one hand to the small of her back. “Will you still love me after your cousin smashes my face?”
She loved him most when he made her smile. “Will you still love me after my cousin smashes in your face?”
“Yes,” he said, suddenly serious. “Always.”
Kat lifted her fingers to his cheek, stroked his beard and wondered if she’d ever get tired of the thrill of touching him. Even with sadness and grief pressing in on her from every side, he made tomorrow worth living for. “Me too.”
Wyoming was mercilessly fucking cold, so cold that Andrew still hadn’t warmed up by the time Derek stopped hugging Kat, and that took almost half an hour. Finally, he reluctantly relinquished her to Mahalia’s care and beckoned for Andrew to follow him.
They walked down the hall to a library. What Alec had said about Derek’s constant worry was evident, because his friend looked like he’d barely been sleeping. “Has Nick been all right?” Andrew asked.
“She’s resting.” Derek dragged a hand through his too-long hair, which responded by standing straight up. “Christ, Andrew. I don’t—” He stopped and turned. “I don’t even want to know what happened. I don’t think I can handle it.”
“It’s in the past anyway,” he answered. “She’s safe now.”
Derek dropped into a rocking chair and braced his elbows on his knees. “And you and Kat…”
“Yeah. Me and Kat.” The only words that would suffice— me and Kat. “I’m going to marry her, you know. Well, after I ask, and provided she says yes.”
“Are you asking my permission?”
“No.” Maybe he should have been, judging from Derek’s forbidding look, but he didn’t have to. “She’s not a kid anymore, man, and we—we don’t want to be apart. It’s time to move on.”
Derek studied him in silence for long enough to be uncomfortable before looking away. “It would be nice to have my best friend back.”
It wasn’t until that moment that Andrew realized how much he’d needed to hear that. Nick had made an effort to pull them back together, but the specter of Kat’s broken heart had lingered between them, impossible to overcome. “I’d like that.”
“Good.” Finally, Derek smiled. “I should beat your ass around the room for not calling me, but my high ground’s a little shaky. Next time my cousin decides to play chicken with a cult? Maybe pick up the phone, Andrew, even if my wife is pregnant.”
“Talk to my alpha. He seemed to think you had enough on your plate.”
“Alec thought you could handle it, I guess. And you did.”
“No, I fucked it up.” And his mistakes had cost Ben and Lia their lives. “I won’t next time, though.”
Derek nodded to the couch across from him in a silent command. “I know. How it feels, I mean. To not save everyone.”
They all did, in one way or another. “Yeah.” Andrew sat and stared at Derek for a long moment, trying to reconcile the man before him with the one he’d known. “Shit, you’re going to have a kid.”
“And you’re going to marry my cousin. If she lets you.” Derek’s grin was lopsided. “Long way from a couple of humans who were going to build the most badass construction firm in the Southeast. Now I live on a ranch and you’re ruling New Orleans.”
Andrew snorted. “Assisting, maybe.”
“Uh-huh. Kat already told me that she’s going to help you save the world.”
After Zola and Walker taught them how to kick ass together, it was at the top of his list. “What can I say? She wants to be a big damn hero. This? I can give her this.”
Derek choked on a laugh. “Yeah, well, don’t forget to take holidays off. You’re family, and the Gabriels spend holidays together.”
He would have spent the last Christmas alone in his loft if Carmen and Julio hadn’t insisted he join them. “We’ll be here, you can count on it.”
“Damn right you will.” Leaning back, Derek raised both eyebrows. “So tell me what’s going on in New Orleans. The unedited versions. For a hacker girl, Kat’s weirdly in love with censoring the good stuff.”
The wistful note in his voice told Andrew that Derek missed it, maybe more than he realized. So he stretched his arms out across the back of the couch and grinned. “How much time do you have?”
“Until Kat gets worried that I really am killing you.”
The second time Nick threw up, Kat started to understand why Derek looked like he hadn’t slept in three weeks. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine.” She rinsed her toothbrush, tossed it back in the holder and leaned against the bathroom doorway. “Only now I’m hungry again. Damn it all.”
That had to be a special kind of hell. “Is this what it’s like all the time? The barfing and the being hungry?”
“So far, and it’s weird. I’ve never actually been nauseated and still wanted to scarf down a whole bucket of chicken.” Nick dropped to the bed and fell back. “Now I want fried chicken. I wonder if Mahalia would make me some.”
“Probably. Especially if you tell her I’m going to eat some too. Everyone seems obsessed with feeding me.” Kat shifted to lean more comfortably against the headboard. “At least I can give you a little peace from Derek now.”
“Ha.” Nick rolled to her side. “You don’t get it, lady. This kid has kicked his parental instincts into high gear. I’m lucky I’m not on bed rest already.”
Derek had been frantic enough in the first year after he’d become Kat’s guardian…and he hadn’t been a shapeshifter. “Yeah, maybe you are. He means well.”
“Of course he does. He wants the best for everyone, no matter what.” Nick’s dark eyes shone with love. “Unfortunately, what he thinks is best for me right now is to be carried everywhere, not lift a finger, and preferably wear clothes made of safety foam.”
“And you used to think I was joking about the bubble wrap. You better make sure he doesn’t line the kid’s walls with it.”
Nick propped her head up on her arm and watched Kat. “Are you okay? I mean, Ben was your friend, and with what happened to you and Julio…”
If anyone could understand, it would be Nick. Nick, who’d fallen in love with Derek in the midst of her sister’s greatest tragedy. Kat picked at the edge of the bandage around her left wrist and tried to figure out where to start.
In the end, nothing worked but the truth. “I feel like I should feel worse.”
A hint of a smile tilted the corner of Nick’s mouth. “Because you’re happy.”
“Because I’ve been through hell before. Andrew almost bled to death in front of me, and I walked away alone.” Kat shrugged helplessly. “It hurts. Ben, and what happened… It hurts a lot. But this time, I have Andrew. And he makes it hurt a little less.”
“That’s not a betrayal,” Nick whispered fiercely. “Anyone who cares about you would be glad, so glad that you have that.”
“I know.” And she did, because she could remember watching Derek watch Nick, and being so relieved that he was loved, even as her own heart broke. She hadn’t begrudged him those moments of happiness. She’d clung to them as proof that the world had a shred of hope. “Thanks, Nick.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s just the truth. The world can be such an ugly place, but it can also be so beautiful it takes your breath away. The trick is to try and find more of the beauty than the ugliness.”
Kat couldn’t stop her lips from curving up. “Andrew takes my breath away.”
Nick rolled over on the bed, laughing. “Then go look at him, and send my husband in here while you’re at it.”
Kat stood and smoothed the blankets. “Andrew probably needs rescuing anyway.” Which was an exaggeration.
Eighteen months of holidays at the ranch had given her a rough idea of the layout. Instead of interrupting an angry confrontation, she found Derek and Andrew in the library. Talking.
No, not just talking. They were laughing together in a way she hadn’t seen in years. Not since before Derek had been turned, when they’d both been humans barely brushing the fringes of a supernatural world.
Brushing them because of her. Because she’d never been entirely human, and Derek had lived on those fringes because he wanted to give her what she needed to grow into her own as a psychic.
Knocking lightly on the doorframe, she leaned in. “Derek? Your wife wants you to go pamper her.”
Derek damn near tripped in his haste to get to his feet. “Is she okay?”
Poor Nick. “She’s fine. I think her request is secret code for ‘leave Andrew and Kat alone’.”
“Smartass.” Derek pointed at Andrew. “Do we need to find you a bedroom to sleep in?”
To Andrew’s credit, he managed not to laugh. “We’ve already been offered the guest house.”
“Which we’re sleeping in together,” Kat pointed out helpfully, just to make Derek wince. He didn’t disappoint, but as soon as his face screwed up into his big-brother-about-to-make-a-fuss expression, she laughed. “Get lost, Derek.”
“Nice to see you too, Kat.” But he leaned down and kissed the top of her head before making himself scarce.
Kat closed the door behind him, then moved to stand in front of Andrew. “Hi.”
He caught her hand and nudged her leg, knocking her down into his lap. “Hi.”
The world fell away, taking the pain of the last few days with it. Here, in this moment, it was her and him, and Nick was right. Life was about clinging to the beautiful parts. “So. Derek didn’t punch you in the face, it seems.”
“Mmm.” Andrew wrapped a lock of her hair around his finger. “He was more interested in whether I plan on breaking your heart again.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I told him that part of our lives is over, and we’re trying something new—being happy.”
They’d broken free of their endless loop. Finally. “Good answer. Especially since I’m pretty sure I already moved in with you, without either of us discussing it.”
He laughed and settled his hands on her thighs. “I did hear that Anna’s going to live with Sera.”
“I said it was okay.” Which had been a presumptuous move, she supposed, in retrospect. Enough of one for nerves to set her heart to racing. “I probably should have asked you first. I mean, asked you if you want me living with you for the rest of forever.”
“You mean like I should have asked before I informed your cousin that I intend to marry you as soon as you’ll let me?”
Now her heart was skipping beats, doing a funny new dance in her chest as she discovered a spontaneous interest in the institution of matrimony. “You could probably talk me around. Only if you come up with an awesome idea for a wedding, though. Mac and Jackson stole Vegas. If we do that now, we’ll just look like copycats.”