A WOLF ON A MISSION Part 5
It was a good thing Vivian was already sitting down. Otherwise Declan's blunt proposal of marriage would have resulted in her landing facedown on the floor. Even seated, it took her several seconds to respond. Not only could she hardly catch her breath, but she also kept hoping either Logan or Declan would crack a smile. Something…anything…to show his suggestion was a joke.
A stupid, unfunny joke.
But no, both men kept staring at her, both looking serious as death as they waited for her to speak. Seriously? Did they really think she should actually consider getting engaged to an alpha wolf she'd only just met? Couldn't they see that would be exchanging marriage to one stranger for another?
"Well, Viv, what do you think?"
Logan asked the question, but she directed her answer to Declan. "Thanks, but no thanks. I appreciate what you're trying to do,"—no, she didn't—"but I think we should go with Plan B."
Declan arched an eyebrow, somehow managing to express both skepticism and amusement with the gesture. "And that would be?"
"You forget you've ever met me, and I disappear again."
She knew another panicky run would only delay the inevitable. It had been pure luck that she'd managed to stay undetected for as long as she had. Even if Declan did let her go, someone else would eventually track her down.
Logan cleared his throat to gain her attention. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think you should consider his offer. No one escapes the Coalition forces for long. Ambrose O'Brien has a well-earned reputation for being both relentless and ruthless."
"That's true." Declan paced across the cell and back. "But the man believes in the letter of the law, and he's fair. Having said that, we'd need members of your pack to step forward to testify that Rolf tried to force you into marriage. That seems unlikely to happen as long as he's in control. Then there's the fact your arm has already healed. Maybe x-rays could still be able to pick up evidence the fracture happened, but maybe not when. I'm guessing he made sure the two of you were alone at the time, so no witnesses."
His words battered at her, leaving her shaking her head. "You know very well that most packs believe wolves mate for life. If we were to go through with this plan of yours, you'd be stuck with me permanently. You can't tell me that your family would approve of you mating for anything less than what your brothers have found with their wives. Your sisters-in-law might have brought strength to your pack, but what do I have to offer?"
Declan's eyes flashed gold. "Even with a broken arm, you took out a male wolf who no doubt was both bigger and stronger and escape. You evaded detection and managed to stay that way with not just your pack and the Coalition looking for you for months on end. If that isn't strength, I don't know what is."
At that point, Logan got up off the floor. "I'm going to leave you two to hash things out. I'll support you whatever you decide, Vivian. If you need money and a vehicle to make another run for it, you just have to ask. But you deserve better than having to live on the run. And Declan's right. Eventually someone will find you."
She didn't know who was more surprised—her or Declan—when the vampire pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and unlocked the cell door. "Treat her right or you'll answer to me. If the plan is to go after Rolf, I want to tag along."
Declan stared at him through the eyes of a wolf. "Why?"
Logan flashed his fangs in response. "For starters, I have issues with men who mistreat women. You'll also need someone to watch your back when you confront him. Besides, it sounds like he's not the only one in that pack who need their asses kicked for them."
Then he held out his hand to Declan, who grinned and accepted the peace offering. "We'll let you know what we decide."
When Vivian opened her mouth as if to speak, Declan held up his hand to cut her off. She looked at him in confusion, but at least she kept whatever she'd been about to say to herself for the moment. Neither of them spoke until after Logan had left the room and the sound of his footsteps had faded in the distance.
Finally Declan broke the silence himself. "You're in a tough spot, Vivian. We both know there's no easy way out of this situation, especially on your own." He stepped out of the cell and moved closer still being careful not to crowd her too much. "And I'm sorry about that."
She watched his every move with wounded eyes, her hands clenched in tight fists at her sides. "I hate this whole mess, Declan. All I want is to be able to live my life in peace. To make my own choices without being backed into yet another corner."
Her chin came up in a stubborn tilt. "Like being forced into a marriage with a total stranger."
He didn't blame her for feeling that way. He'd always been grateful that his father wasn't the kind of Alpha who thought his offspring were chess pieces to be used in some inter-pack power game. If he'd asked Declan to choose a mate based on her strategic value to the pack, would he have done it? Maybe, maybe not. It would have depended on how desperate the situation was. He was just glad to never have been forced to make that choice.
In fact, it surprised him that the other half of his soul wasn't howling in protest over the thought of taking Vivian as his mate. Instead, his wolf remained suspiciously quiet unless it perceived any kind of threat to her or when she was upset and needed soothing. Declan poked and prodded that idea for a bit as he tried to figure out what it meant. Then it hit him—his wolf considered Vivian theirs to protect because she really was a possible mate.
His pulse kicked it up a notch at the thought, but he wrangled the sudden surge of excitement over the prospect back under control. He might want what both of his brothers had found with their wives, but his conscience wouldn't allow him to force Vivian into bonding with him for life. It had to be her choice, too. Period. Otherwise he would be no better than Rolf in her eyes. That realization had his wolf growling, because their job was to defend their mate even from themselves. He forced his next words out through clenched teeth. "What if I promise to let you go once we've cleared your name?"
Her eyes widened in shock. "You'd do that?"
It took everything he had to nod. "Yes, if you want to leave, I won't stop you."
Even if it killed him and meant he'd live out his life alone. Not all mated pairs stayed together, but it was rare for a powerful alpha to break that kind of bond once it was made. He reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and then dared to cup her cheek with the palm of his hand. "We'll get your life back for you. Once we do, I swear on my honor that you and you alone will decide what happens next."
For a brief second, she leaned into his hand and closed her eyes as if taking some small amount of comfort from his touch. Then she retreated several steps, putting more than just a physical distance between them. She was clearly shoring up her defenses, not that he blamed her. Logan had had time to earn her trust, but Declan was still an unknown quantity. Rather than continue to press her, he backed away and gave her all the time she needed to come to a decision.
"I'll hold you to that, Declan, because I'm taking a big risk here. You've never met Rolf and have no idea what kind of fighter he is. If he does agree to face you, there's no guarantee on how things will go. If you lose, I'll end up back where I started—mated to a brute."
"Logan will do everything he can to get you out of there."
"He'll try, but he's only one vampire against an entire pack of wolves. Even if some aren't happy about Rolf taking over as their pack Alpha, they'll back him against an outsider. Logan has been a good friend to me, and I don't want him to die trying to protect me."
After a brief hesitation, she added, "Or you, either, for that matter."
Those few words pleased both man and wolf. It wasn't exactly a declaration of love or even friendship, but it was a move in the right direction.
"So, are we doing this? Will you be my mate?"
"I guess I'll have to be."
His wolf wanted to howl in celebration, but now wasn't the time. Declan gave her a quick nod. "Vivian Channing Lyell, I swear on my twin souls to protect you against all who would cause you harm, to offer comfort in times of sorrow, to celebrate in times of joy, and to walk at your side until our paths separate."
She clearly hadn't expected such a formal declaration of their bond. Her caramel colored eyes stared into his for way too long before she finally nodded. "I accept your oath, Declan Lyell, for as long as our footsteps follow the same path."
He'd gotten what he wanted even if she was back to looking pretty damn skittish. He was pretty sure there was a better than even chance she would take off running if he did anything to spook her. The smartest tactic would be to keep an eye on her but from a safe distance. Having said, it wasn't every day a man chose a mate, and every instinct he had demanded he stake his claim on her even if she slapped him silly for even trying.
Between one second and the next, he closed the small distance between them to wrap her in his arms in a firm but gentle hold. Holding her gaze prisoner, he slowly leaned in to brush his lips across hers once…twice…three times before finally claiming a real kiss. Taking his time, he coaxed her into responding. When she sighed and parted her lips, he tasted his mate for the first time. It felt like coming home and left him wanting so much more.
But it was too soon for that. He backed away from temptation, smiling as he did. "Thank you for that, Viv. Out of necessity, we will have to act enough like a mated couple in front of Rolf and your pack to convince him to accept my challenge. But it will be a different matter when we're behind closed doors. Whatever happens there between us is strictly up to you. I'm not the kind of man to force a woman, not even if she's my chosen mate."
Her fingers strayed to her lips, but then her stance stiffened. "I appreciate what you and Logan are willing to do to help me, but don't forget that we're mates in name only. For sure, I won't."
Ignoring the stab of pain her words caused him, he headed toward the door. She reached out to stop him. "Already regretting your offer of help? Because if you want to leave, go ahead."
He glanced down at her hand on his arm before finally responding. "I gave you my word, Vivian. That might not count for much where you come from, but personal honor is everything in my family and in my pack."
He shook off her hold. "And if it's all right with you, I'm going to find Logan and finalize plans. The sooner we get started, the sooner we'll both get our lives back."
"I'm sorry, Declan."
He believed that. He just didn't know if she was sorry because she'd doubted him or because she'd ever met him in the first place.
Now wasn't the time for that discussion, so he walked away and left her to follow as she would.