The bond was severed. His mate was dead.
Clutching her to his chest, he threw back his head and screamed.
Jax, buddy, you have to let her go.
Oh, God, somebody do something!
Leave him alone, asshole! Can’t you see he’s grieving?
Their voices came to him from far away. Grieving?
Yes. He was grieving his mate. Murdered by his former lover and her evil partners. Nothing would ever be all right again.
All along, it was Kira who was meant to die. Not me.
Nick had known. There was nothing to do now except follow her into death and hope she’d be waiting for him. Except . . .
If you could go back and relive any perfect moment in your life, which one would it be?
He’d told her none. That they’d go on to live their lives and make more perfect moments. And now there was only one way to do that.
Use his gift. The one he’d failed to use that night six months ago, and as a result, had failed his team. He had the power to make this right. For him and Kira.
Lovingly, he kissed his mate’s cooling brow and laid her carefully upon the ground. Time was literally of the essence.
Oh, God, please let my gift return.
He was hardly aware of his team surrounding him as he stood, held his arms out from his sides, palms up. Ignored their calls as he let the rage consume him, fuel his power, and they realized what he was doing.
It can’t be gone. Because if it’s gone, so is she. Forever.
Reaching out with his senses, he found nothing at first. Only blank silence where his gift used to be. No, please!
And then, just as he was about to give in to despair, a glimmer of something . . . There! The threads. The very fabric of time. Desperately, he snagged them one by one, gathered them, bent them to his will. Spun them, running the reel backward.
The scene before him fell away and he watched the film outside of himself, an observer waiting for exactly the right moment. He’d only get one chance, and if he failed, he’d not have the strength to do it again.
He was on the roof again, going for the helicopter as Kira helped Ryon dispatch his assailant. Now!
Jax let go of the threads and prepared himself for impact. With brutal force, he was slammed back inside his wolf’s body, the shock taking his breath away. But he had only precious seconds to recover. The helicopter was about to lift off with Aric inside, and a lance of agony went through Jax at the decision he’d already made.
His mate’s life, or Aric’s.
There was no choice.
This time, instead of going for the helicopter, he spun and intercepted his mate as she tried to streak past him. He tackled her, pinning her smaller wolf’s body with his much larger one. Even with his injury, she had no hope of dislodging him. She was no match for the strength of his desperation.
And of his love.
The helicopter lifted, engines throttling. He raised his head to see the men inside, holding a struggling Aric. Beryl’s expression was catlike, satisfied. God only knows what they would do to his friend.
But it was the look of hurt and betrayal on Aric’s face that Jax would never forget.
He’d saved his mate, but the cost had been great. Not just for him, but the entire team. Nick would probably fire him for what he’d done. But the memory of holding Kira’s broken body shook him, and he knew he wouldn’t change what he’d done.
Underneath him, she shifted, and he did, too. Big blue eyes gazed up at him, confused and worried. “Why did you stop me? I could’ve saved him,” she whispered.
Tears escaped to stream down his face. He couldn’t have stopped them if he tried. “I know you could have. You did.”
“You saved Aric, but Beryl pushed you from the helicopter,” he choked. “You fell to your death.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. “Are you kidding?”
“I wish I were. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.” Scooping her into his arms, he crushed her against his chest. He was barely aware of himself, Kira, and Ryon being joined on the roof by the rest of his team.
“I think I remember falling,” his mate said after a few moments. “It’s like a dream.”
“A bad one.”
He wasn’t sure how long he’d held her when suddenly clothing appeared on him and Kira. Looking up, he saw Kalen standing nearby with a faint smile on his lips.
“You guys were blinding me,” he said.
He gave a hollow laugh. “Thanks, Sorcerer.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I don’t suppose you could flash that helicopter back here?”
Regret etched his face. “I’m sorry, man. I tried to perform a grounding spell, but it got away before I could get a good grip on it.”
Jax stood and helped his mate up, limping a bit on his bad leg. He’d have to get the wound checked out. Later. “That’s all right. It’s my fault those sons of bitches got away with Aric. I take full responsibility.”
He drew her into his side, unable to let go. Not now, maybe never. How was it possible for a man to be so elated, yet completely consumed with guilt? Whatever happened to Aric was on his head.
To have his mate alive and healthy, he would pay whatever price the future held.
“Is everyone else okay?” he asked Kalen.
The Sorcerer nodded. “A little beat up, but healing.”
Nick walked over, his expression unreadable. “We’ll talk at the compound.” His gaze flicked to Kira. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Thanks to my mate.”
“Yes.” Their boss was silent for a moment. “Let’s finish our sweep, make sure there are no captives here, and get out.”
They finished their jobs, speaking very little. The others knew what he’d done, remembered more than Kira did. He could tell by the solemn stares directed his way. They’d never begrudge him his mate’s life, but they were all sick about Aric.
No captives were found, nor was there any scent of Micah or any other shifters in the lab or holding areas. The computer hard drives contained no information they could use. The entire scene that Zan and Kalen had observed, with Bowman, Chappell, Beryl, and their henchmen moving crates and equipment into this building had been a ruse. A setup from start to finish to trap them.
Weary, the team began the long trek home, made interminable by the loss of one of their own. By the time they reached the compound, dawn had broken. They dragged themselves inside and headed for their separate quarters. Jax turned to his boss and awaited his instructions, stomach churning.
“You going to give me walking papers?”
Nick sighed. “I don’t know. You two get some rest and I’ll see you in my office this afternoon.” He left them standing there, staring after him.
“Come on, handsome.” Kira tugged on his hand. “Let’s go.”
He let her lead him to their apartment, pull him inside. As they undressed, he recalled his bullet wounds and inspected them in the bathroom mirror. Just a scratch across his right butt cheek, and the wound in his bad leg was already healed. It still hurt, but he could live with it.
He had his mate.
They brushed their teeth and then he turned on the shower. He let the water get hot and then pulled her inside with him. Just held her as the spray washed away some of the terror and sadness of the past few hours.
“I couldn’t lose you,” he said hoarsely, tightening his arms around her.
“You didn’t, and you won’t have to.”
His cock filled to press against her belly. He’d almost lost her, and both the man and the wolf needed to reaffirm their connection. Reclaim their mate.
Nuzzling her, he kissed his way to her nipples, licked at the droplets streaming over them. He suckled them until she squirmed, tugging at his wet hair. He straightened and a small hand found his sac, fingers manipulating him. Driving him insane.
“I can’t wait, baby. I need to be inside you.”
“Then don’t wait,” she urged breathlessly. “Fuck me.”
Holding her around the waist, he lifted her and pinned her back against the tile. “Hang on.”
She clung to his shoulders, legs going around his middle, and he positioned the head of his throbbing length to her opening. Pushed slowly inside and impaled her, inch by inch.
“Oh, God! That’s so good,” she praised. “More.”
He gave her all of him, supporting her with his hands cupped under her bottom. Began to thrust, loving the feel of her slick heat massaging his cock. Again and again he drove into her, knowing this wouldn’t last long.
When she shuddered around him, crying out, he went over the edge. Pumped himself deep inside, giving her all of him. This was where he belonged.
“I love you, Kira.”
“I love you, too. So much.”
He drew back to see tears in her eyes, and wiped them away. “Don’t cry, angel.” Carefully, he pulled out and set her down.
“I can’t help it. You saved me, and now Aric—”
“Shhh. I wouldn’t change what I did even if I could. We’ll find him. In the meantime we’ll move forward and live all those perfect moments, just like we planned.”
“And the not so perfect ones.”
“Those, too.” Drying them both off, he carried her straight to bed and held her close.
“Hey, I just realized I lost the bet,” she said, voice drowsy.
“I didn’t get Raven or Belial rehabbed within the month. Now I have to wash the whole team’s dirty laundry.”
She sounded so mournful, he chuckled. “I never told the others about that, you know. I think we can let it slide.”
“Absolutely. Sleep, baby.”
She drifted off, but slumber eluded him. Instead, he simply enjoyed her warm body tucked into his. Cherished the fact that she was here, whole and healthy. He wouldn’t waste this second chance. He owed that to her.
And to Aric.
Nick was waiting when Jax walked into his office several hours later.
“Take a seat.”
He did, certain the ax was about to fall. “I’ll have my stuff cleared out and Kira and I will be gone by tonight.”
His boss arched a brow. “Just like that?”
“Yes. It’s what I deserve.”
“Really? You think you deserve to run from the consequences of your actions? You think your team deserves to have you desert them just when they need you the most?”
Jax sat back, stunned. “Well, no. But I don’t understand how you can go easy on me after I chose Kira over one of my own brothers.”
“Is that what you think? That I’m going easy?” Nick smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “No, Jax. You’ll stay here and do your part on this team. You’ll help us win the war against Chappell and find out who’s backing him. And you’ll help us locate Aric, Micah, and anyone else they’ve gotten their dirty hands on, and bring them home. That’s your mission. Is that understood?”
He swallowed hard. “Yes, sir. I won’t let any of you down again.”
“You didn’t let us down with your choice to save your mate,” Nick said softly. “Everyone understands, even me. Especially me. But actions have consequences, sometimes far-reaching ones.”
“Have I completely screwed up the future, put us in even more danger?” He dreaded the answer. But it wasn’t what he expected.
“No man should be cursed with knowing what the future will bring, or how the endless array of choices made every second affects the possible outcomes. Those choices are like balls striking one another on a pool table—you know?”
“I—I think so.”
“Each choice affects another. A single deed or whispered word can topple an empire . . . Or save a loved one. All we can do is weigh the risks and rewards, and move on. That’s all any man can do, and for all your abilities, you’re still a man at heart. Nothing more.”
His words humbled Jax. He hung his head for a moment, thinking. Then he looked at his boss, and friend. “I can’t help but feel like we failed.”
“No,” he said firmly. “We learned what Chappell and his partners are up to, and we learned Beryl is alive and is one of them. We rescued two shifters and we’re going to liberate more, including our own. We’re on the trail of our enemies, and we’re going to win.”
“If we make the right moves.”
Jax knew Nick wouldn’t reveal more. He stood, offered his hand, which his boss shook. “I won’t let you down,” he repeated. “Or my team.”
“I know. Now go find that mate of yours.” He released his grip. “Tonight we rest. Tomorrow we’ll regroup.”
“And kick some ass.”
Nick laughed. “That’s the plan.”
Jax walked out of his boss’s office feeling optimistic. Chappell and whoever were pulling the strings might have won the battle, but they weren’t going to win the war.
“Hold on, old friend,” Jax said. “We’re coming for you. Count on it.”
With new purpose in his stride, he went to find his mate.
His heart and soul.
Aric awoke slowly, head pounding. His brain felt stuffed with cotton, and his entire body ached. Where the fuck was he?
He tried to move, only to find he was chained against something solid, maybe a wall, arms and legs spread wide.
And he was naked as the day he’d been born.
From the shadows, a tall slender figure emerged. A woman with long hair a darker shade of red than his own. She was dressed in black slacks and a skimpy top that left little to the imagination.
“Beryl, you bitch,” he hissed.
Her laugh sparkled with amusement. “Is that any way to speak to your sister?”
His voice was cold. “I don’t claim you. I never have.”
“Is that why you never told your sexy friend Jax the truth? I wonder how your team will react to your betrayal,” she mused aloud. The prospect apparently pleased her. A lot.
“I didn’t betray them. I thought Jax was happy, and despite what a skank I know you are, I didn’t want to interfere. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“No, you won’t get the chance.” Too late, he saw the knife in her hand, glowing red from being placed in the fire.
“Scream, dear brother.”
As she pressed the hot blade into his side, he promised himself he wouldn’t. But half an hour later, he failed, screaming until his voice broke. Until consciousness began to fade.
Ryon? Someone, find me, he begged. Even though I don’t deserve it.
Please find me.
Blessedly, the knife, Beryl, and the horror faded to nothing.