The monsters of Tracy’s past clawed at her shoulders, never allowing her a moment of true peace. Her nightmares—the horrors her life had been for so long—did quiet as she watched her daughter, Karen, swinging on the playset in the back of the omega group home where they lived.
Sure, she’d never thought she’d end up living in a place like that. She hadn’t grown up expecting to have a single room where she and her daughter slept in the same bed, where they ate their meals at a table full of other omegas and children who had no home.
And yet, she went to sleep without fear of one of her mate’s mood shifts. She closed her eyes and knew Karen wouldn’t waken to screaming, crying or the snap of flesh against flesh.
“Mom!” Karen rushed to the deck Tracy sat on, the little girl’s red hair tangled from her games. “When’s Sam coming?”
The question sent a lance of pain through Tracy’s chest. Just the name sprang the alpha’s face to her mind.
His black hair and tan skin, his lips always pulled into that reassuring smile. It haunted her sometimes, when she closed her eyes and recalled his sweet disposition.
She’d stayed with him for two weeks after the death of her mate, two weeks when she and Tracy had found some stability with the detective. He had gathered her into his arms when she’d cried as the ambulance had taken her mate’s body away, had sat up with Karen when she’d woken from a bad dream that first night.
“I don’t know.” Tracy ran her pencil over the paper before her, sketching the landscaped backyard. “He’s busy.”
That, and she’d moved out, despite him asking her to stay. When they’d stood by his front door, Karen already in the waiting car, Tracy had struggled to put into words why she had to leave.
‘Stay, Tracy.’ Sam had leaned his shoulder against the wall with the same ease he always had. He never looked put out, never ruffled. Instead, a kind smile was always on his full lips and his brown eyes sparkled with charm. ‘Karen’s happy here, and I have more than enough space. You’ll be cramped in one of those homes, and you won’t have my charming smile.’
‘I can’t.’ She’d rubbed her palms on her thighs, nerves running rampant through her as they always did with Sam near. His presence and his scent made her want to crawl the walls. She wanted more and yet it sparked a fear inside her she couldn’t ignore. She could never quite get a hold of herself around the alpha who had made it clear that he wanted her.
‘Why not? Just help me understand the problem. I like you two here,’ he’d admitted, voice low when she didn’t answer right away.
‘I’m not ready.’
‘I’m not asking you for anything.’
‘You will. I don’t have anything, and I need to take time for Karen and me.’
‘Take the time here.’ Sam had reached toward her, as though he’d wanted to take her wrist, to touch her, to cross the threshold he was always careful to keep.
Tracy had jerked backward, fear winning out. It always won out. It wasn’t Sam she was afraid of, but he was as good a stand-in as any for her demons.
He’d sighed and dropped his hand. A soft nod had ruffled his short hair, but he’d come no closer. ‘Okay. Look, you’ve got a place here, and you can call me anytime. Spend some time, work on yourself, and come back.’ He’d stared at her, as though he’d wanted an answer. When none had come, he’d curled his lips up on one side. ‘I can wait as long as you need me to.’
Karen pulled on Tracy’s hand, waking her from the memory, from the last time she’d seen Sam a month before.
“Can we go see him? He said he’d take me for ice cream.”
Tracy set her pencil down and tried to keep a steady face. Karen didn’t need to see the longing there. “I don’t know, sweetheart. It’s getting late. Why don’t you go play before we take you in and get you a bath, hmm?”
Karen gave her a sigh and a slight glare, one intended to say exactly what she thought about her mother’s avoidance. The girl was too smart, a sad souvenir from being raised in a household with her father. She’d grown up having to be aware of every little thing, always afraid of setting off his temper, which meant she saw more than she should, knew more than she should have needed to.
She rushed off to the swing set again, and when she did that, when she played like any other eight-year-old, Tracy could almost pretend they were normal.
Karen was a regular kid who hadn’t lived through hell. Tracy was an omega looking for love and a life and a mate, not the used-up, broken creature her mate had left after his death.
Sam’s smile flashed in her mind again, and she returned her attention to her drawing. If only she could pretend things were different, that she was the sort of woman who could have a future with an alpha like that.
Instead of any of that, she hid herself in her art, in the care of her daughter, and shoved Sam’s handsome face away.
* * * *
Sam sat across from Claire, the omega he’d come to know, her three mates moving around the house, prowling close as they always did. They were protective, as most alphas were, and even with people they knew and trusted, they never went far away.
Which made Sam laugh, because he’d damn well seen what Claire had done to the alpha who had threatened her weeks before. He’d seen the way the dead alpha’s throat had been torn out, the teeth marks and chunks of flesh missing from him. In fact, he was likely in more danger than she was. Omegas weren’t something to underestimate.
Even so, the sweetness of their worry charmed him. He’d always wanted that, the laughter of an omega and the playing of children filling his home.
It seemed less likely it would happen as the years passed, but that didn’t stop him from wanting it.
“What about Alison?” Concern colored Claire’s words.
“Without her coming in to talk to me, there isn’t much I can do. I’ve added notes to files in case she gets picked up, but I’ve got limits, and helping an off-the-grid omega who won’t come forward is one of them.”
“She’s missing,” Claire said, drawing the words out as if that alone made her point.
“From what I saw, she can handle herself. She’s vicious,” Bryce chimed in, with a slight shudder.
“Vicious or not, I tried to call her two weeks ago, and I haven’t heard anything. Tiffany hasn’t heard anything. No one has been to her cabin in weeks.”
Sam tapped his fingers against the edge of the kitchen counter, trying to act as though those things didn’t get to him. He’d seen what happened to omegas when they disappeared, and it was never anything good. Still, Claire had been through enough. The woman didn’t need to hear that if Alison was missing, she was probably dead. As a detective for an omega crimes division, he’d seen the worst. Sam knew exactly how many risks to omegas existed.
Instead, he shrugged. “I can’t put a search out without any information, especially since she’s staying off the radar on purpose. If I hear anything, I’ll tell you.”
Claire’s shoulders sank, and immediately, Kaidan was there. He pressed a kiss to her temple. “She’s fine, I’m sure. You can disappear when you want to, so I’d bet she can, too.”
Claire tipped her head up and offered a sweet kiss to Kaidan, the exchange driving that ache deeper into Sam’s chest, his envy of the life he wanted and couldn’t manage to get.
So, instead, Sam dropped his gaze to the tile of the counter and gave them privacy, not wanting to intrude on the moment.
Claire’s voice drew him back moments later. “She’s doing well.”
Sam’s chuckle was soft, but he played dumb. “Who are we talking about, now?”
Claire’s look said his attempt at humor didn’t land. “Karen’s been asking about you, too.”
Sam even missed that little girl. He still had the picture she’d drawn him hung on his fridge, and damn if he didn’t stare at that thing while he ate at his kitchen table alone. “She’s a good kid. They’re doing okay? Don’t need anything?”
“They’re good. I went to the house yesterday and checked in. Karen loves the big yard and the swing set, and Tracy is mostly just resting.”
Sam leaned his elbow on the counter as he reminded himself that he was glad. He wanted her to be happy. He wanted Tracy to get her feet under her.
He remembered her black eye and injured hip after the last encounter with her mate, when her mate had found her after she’d run, after Claire had helped her run. The first night when he’d brought her to his house, as stupid as the choice had been, she’d woken from a nightmare. He’d pulled her against his chest and offered a gentle purr until she’d fallen back asleep. Her hip had healed fast, and he’d grown used to having her near.
Damn, she’d crawled beneath his skin fast.
It was good she was getting her bearings and working on herself, creating a life for them. He just wished he could be a part of it.
Not that he didn’t understand her hesitation. The poor girl had gotten snatched up by that alpha of hers young, and he’d kept his claws in her for years. She’d never had the chance to be on her own.
So, he understood it, and if it was anyone else, he’d have said she should stay on her own for at least a year. He’d dealt with omegas in similar situations enough to know that rushing things wasn’t the best choice.
The part of him that wanted her for his own, though, wasn’t thrilled with the idea of waiting so long. The itch through him, the unease that never went away, demanded he go find her, that he sate himself with her scent and make sure she was okay.
He’d just denied it over the past month. Each time he’d craved her, when he’d wanted to call the house, wanted to show up no matter what a disaster he knew it would be, he’d just shoved it down. Of course, the more he denied it, the more it grew inside him. The thing was like a prowling dog on a chain, now.
He ground the heel of his palm against his chest as if it could break up the tension that had settled there.
“That’s good,” he said instead, hoping none of it showed.
Claire’s eyes, sharp and far too smart, said she’d spotted it anyway. “You know, you can’t go to the omega house, since they’re not big on alphas, but maybe the next time I have her and Karen over, I could shoot you a text?”
Sam laughed at the ploy. “As sneaky as you are, that’s probably not a good idea.”
“Because she was pretty clear about wanting space.”
“Omegas don’t always know what they want,” Bryce offered from the other side of the counter. “Claire here wasn’t easy to catch, and if I’d listened to her, it never would have happened.”
Claire sent him a glare, and he only lifted an eyebrow in response. The affection between them, even with the subtle jabs, had Sam smiling.
“That’s different. Tracy isn’t wrong about this. She should have some time on her own, time to figure out what she wants.” Sam offered Claire a smile. “Besides, I can wait. Thanks for letting me know they’re doing well. If she needs anything, give me a call.”
Joshua leaned against the counter, his shoulder pressed against Claire’s as if he couldn’t quite get close enough. “I helped her look over some of the financial paperwork last time she was here. Her mate’s death certificate had come through, and she was given access to all the funds. That man had no shortage of money, so when she’s ready to move out? She and the girl are set.”
Sam hadn’t expected that. Nothing in his interactions with Tracy had implied she came from money.
Claire spoke up as though she’d read the thought on Sam’s face. “She didn’t handle the finances, so I don’t think she knew what they had. He was the sort to keep all that away from her.”
“Probably afraid if she knew, if she had access, that she’d use it to run. Bastards like that enjoy cutting their mates off from any chance of help.” Sam didn’t bother to hide the anger in his voice at the idea of Tracy being trapped, of her being at that mate’s mercy while trying to care for a young child.
Again, that tension rose in him, and try as he might, he knew he couldn’t fully settle the powerful instinct. It wanted her. It wanted a shot at her mate, despite the fact the bastard was six feet under. It wanted to lock the doors and crawl into bed beside her, to know she was safe and that the child was safe, as well.
But that wasn’t happening, at least no time soon.
He contented himself with giving in and giving up the pretenses. “Okay, fine. You’ve got me. Tell me everything about how they’re doing.”