“Did you release him?”
“We’ll have to by morning. But I’ll put a unit on him. If he moves wrong, we’ll know it.” He picked up one of the papers I was looking through. “What are you working on?”
“Just trying to connect some dots.” I rolled my shoulders and tried to work out some of the tension. “That coin is bothering the hell out of me.”
Mason moved behind me and then his hands were on my shoulders. Massaging gently, he worked on my knots. I let out a noise that was far too close to one of Charlie’s purrs. “Oh… You can stop that, never.”
Mason chuckled, a low sound that vibrated from his chest. “So what about the coin is bothering you?”
I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate. It was so tempting to just melt into a puddle. “How it got out of evidence.”
“With money like the Chevalier’s, he could have had it spelled out of there. Hell, he could have paid a cop off. Or just a good thief. Evidence lockers are pretty secure, but someone really good could still manage. With the help of a little magic.”
I grimaced. He was right. We’d probably never know for sure unless we got Min and gained a full confession. But I didn’t have to like it.
“Are you hungry?” Mason asked, and his hands gave my shoulders one last squeeze before he headed to the kitchen.
I followed him and watched, mesmerized, as he whipped up a small feast. My offers to help were waved off, so I enjoyed the show.
“Where’d you learn to cook so well?” I asked, then took another bite of the most well-cooked steak I’d had since I could remember.
“My mom,” he said gruffly.
Keep things light. “I wish mine had passed on such a useful skill.”
His eyebrows rose. “Your mom didn’t cook?”
I snorted. The idea of my mother in the kitchen was too funny. “No. She ordered things from the cook. She never would have deigned to get her hands dirty.”
“Is she—I mean you talk about her in the past tense.”
The bite of steak I’d consumed suddenly formed a rock in my stomach. “No, she’s not dead or anything. She’s just no longer in my life. Or, I guess it’s more accurate to say that I’m no longer in hers.”
Mason just waited silently, eating his asparagus and eyeing me over his fork. Leaving it up to me if I wanted to continue.
“My mother is married to one of the Leighs. I changed my last name. Took her maiden name when I graduated high school.”
Mason chewed his food slowly, before swallowing it and taking a sip of wine. Thinking about the only Leighs worth mentioning as if the name would mean something all on its own, no doubt.
“Any relationship to Natalie Leigh and her family?” he asked. Natalie Leigh was the department’s witch, or near enough. An independent contractor who the local police departments consulted when they needed the service of a Covenant witch.
“She’s a cousin.” I shook my head. Telling him half the story wasn’t enough, and wasn’t fair. I’d opened the door. Time to walk through. “The man I thought was my father until I was a teenager is Atticus Leigh.”
Mason whistled low under his breath, and I could hardly blame him. I’d just uttered the name of one of the most powerful Covenant witches in the country and included the word “father” in the same sentence.
I took a long drink from my wine glass. “At first, they just thought I was an unfortunate screw up of nature. It happens sometimes, you know. A child born of a powerful witch couple has no magical ability. It’s rare—but it does happen. Such children are usually ignored, but not exiled.”
“But you’re also a sensitive,” Mason said thoughtfully.
“Yes. When I got old enough to start showing my very human power, my mom could no longer deny that she’d had a…dalliance. With a human. So my father had me shipped off to boarding school for the rest of my childhood, and now they pretend I don’t exist.”
Mason’s grip around his wine glass tightened.
“It’s not so bad. I have a small trust fund that ensures I’ll never starve, even if I didn’t have my income from the Force.” My forced smile faltered. “I’m just never invited home.”
“Fucking-a. How can your mom let him do that?”
A nervous laugh escaped me. “I’m pretty certain that most of my exile is due to her. Not that Atticus Leigh wants proof of his wife’s affair hanging around, but I think her shame exceeds his.”
Mason looked like he wanted to kill someone, so I tried to reassure him. “I’m fine, really. I’m not complaining. I got the best education money could buy, and was never abused—not really. Besides, I’m not the only person ever ostracized and banished from family gatherings, right?”
He grimaced. “About that…” He poured us both a new glass of wine.
More wine needed? This was bound to be interesting. I took a sip and waited.
“My family didn’t really exile me. Not in the way yours did.”
I frowned. “I thought you said someone died—that you no longer spoke with your family.”
“I don’t. But they didn’t exile me. I guess you could say that I banished myself.”
I set my wine glass down carefully. “So you’re saying that you have a family out there just waiting to let you back into their lives—waiting to love you—and you choose not to talk to them?”
His eyes clouded over with regret. “I made a huge mistake, Astrid. And even if they weren’t willing to punish me, someone had to. I haven’t seen them since, nor have I changed forms.”
“What did you do that was so awful? Who died?” How long had it been since he’d talked to them, since he’d changed?
“A girl I was supposed to marry.”
My mouth went dry and I stared at him.
“It was arranged, clans of lycans still do that sometimes to strengthen the bonds. We were both willing.” He shrugged and looked down at his half-finished meal. “I was ten years younger, in my early twenties. And she was beautiful.”
My stomach swirled and wrenched. “And what happened?”
“She had a boyfriend before agreeing to the match. He followed her into the city. He didn’t want to let her go. So the night before our wedding, he killed her, and then himself.”
My mind raced. Did Mason love her? Is that why he’d never wanted to pursue me past that kiss until we were forced together because of this case? And God, how could he blame himself when someone else had killed her?
“I don’t get how that’s your fault,” I said finally.
“She was under my protection. I should have stopped him. Should have saved her.” Self-loathing and guilt cut across his features, transforming his normally hard, expressionless face into something raw and bloody.
“Mason. Her death wasn’t your fault. And I think your family would agree with me, if you’d let them.” Not only had he not talked to his family in a decade, he hadn’t changed into his lycan form. It was a double punishment. He didn’t get to be around the people who loved him, and he had robbed himself of the power he could gain by changing. And while he might someday talk to his family again, the power of his lycan form might never be regained. Changing wasn’t easy for lycans. The process was difficult, and it only got harder if they didn’t shift often. And by denying that change for years, Mason may have denied himself his natural birthright forever.
The mask dropped back over his face. “I can’t do that. Not yet. I can’t face them.”
My heart twisted, and I battled the urge to hit him for being an idiot, or pull him into my arms and give him the comfort he so desperately needed. But I didn’t think he’d thank me for either gesture, so I settled for pushing up from the table and carrying my dishes to the sink.
I was rinsing my glass after finishing the last couple of swallows of wine when I felt his heat behind me. He didn’t touch me, just moved close enough that I could feel him.
“I swore that I’d never put myself in that position again. That I’d never consider a future with someone. Never care about someone like that again.” His voice was soft, and I could feel his breath slide against my hair as he spoke.
“Did you love her?” I whispered, then bit my lip. I hadn’t meant to ask that question, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to know the answer.
“I thought I did, at the time. And maybe I did, as much as I could, given our age and our short time together.” His hand moved to my shoulder, touching me softly. He traced his fingertips down my arm. “But I don’t think I really knew what being in love was…until I met you.”
I tried to find my voice but couldn’t. I wasn’t able to force my body to turn around to face him either. Instead, I stood at the sink and shuddered as he slid my hair aside and kissed my neck.
I didn’t move as his hands glided up to caress my back and shoulders, down to my waist and around to my stomach. But my mind whirred. Here was a man—a wonderful, exciting, sexy man—who wanted me. Maybe even loved me. But his choice to cut himself off from the only thing I’d ever yearned for hurt me on a deep, foundational level.
But with his skillful hands touching me, his wet mouth against my skin, I could forget. For a little while.
I turned from the sink and he took my mouth with his, his arms slipping around me to pull me close. Desperation laced his kiss, and the fever of it touched me as well. His mouth opened and I tasted the wine on his tongue.
Holding me close, he kissed me until I burned for him. Our bodies melded together in a comforting embrace. Then he stepped back and took my hand.
We reached his bedroom and I stood at the end of the bed while he undressed me languidly. As each piece of clothing dropped, he would pause and kiss the skin it revealed. Passion laced his gaze, but something else too. Something tender and fragile.
I ran my hands through his hair and over his shoulders, kissing him when he drew near. But I didn’t rush him. My body shook and I trembled when he finally lifted me onto the bed.