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Stefan's Mark

A Shifter Novel : Book One

By: Jaden Sinclair
Published By: Melange Books, LLC
Copyright: Copyright © 2009-2015 by Jaden Sinclair
Nine Chapters / 54,382
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Stefan Draeger has waited for four years to claim his mate, the girl who would fulfill his every dream. The moment he saw her he knew she was meant for him, only she was too young at the time to take. Now she is old enough for the pleasures he has in store for her, if only he can convince her of it first.

Sidney Martin refused to believe in the tales or madness of her father. She waited her whole life for the freedom he has denied her for so long. The freedom to experience life her way, with her rules. She never thought she would be tossed from one prison to another. Or that her second prison would unlock the doors of her passion that can only be tamed by the Shifter.

Chapter One

The chilly air of the early October night, along with a good chase, called to his blood. A hunt should be on. Being the one hunted wasn’t cool, yet Stefan Draeger took it as a challenge. He ran in the woods with a smile. He loved how the adrenalin felt in his system, loved the thrill of any kind of chase, even when he was the one being chased.

Many times over the past few years, he would come to this place, come to these woods to remember his father, and one day, he would come to seek his revenge for the death that should never have happened.

Stefan stopped running to remember and to catch his breath. His hearing was alert. It allowed him the ability not only to hear all the sounds of nature but also the noise of the footfalls the men were making as they ran after him. His memory was sharp. He recalled the last time he was close to this house that had soon turned into his nightmare. The house that he thought, as a child, had swallowed up his father, never letting him go, and then caught on fire. He had seen it only for a brief moment before he was discovered, but it was enough of a sight to have his anger boiling and all the memories rushing toward him once again. Hell, he was shocked to discover the place still standing and looking as if nothing had happened all those years ago. Stefan remembered how he didn’t get his hunt that night. Instead, he lost his youth and childhood.

“I think it went over here!”

Stefan snapped out of his thoughts of the past. He felt his anger rise. The voice, the voice that had filled his nightmares as a child, the voice that had haunted him for so many years, was once again close.

Unable to control himself, his lip curled up with a snarl, and he sent out a warning growl with a deadly hiss. Only at the age of nineteen, his warnings weren’t so effective. His brother always told him that he needed to work on them, and his mother only said it would come in time. Dedrick! His brother and head of the family. If he knew what Stefan was doing tonight, he would skin Stefan’s hide for sure.

Stefan sniffed the air to see how close or how far away they might be before he once again took off at a run. His shirt was dirty, his pants ripped, and his thin jean jacket did little to keep the cold air from his body. His hair was plastered to his face with sweat as he ran.

Stefan once again stopped running, this time to examine an old tree with a hollow base; the same base that he had been shoved into so many years ago in order to hide from the men who were hunting him. He was breathing hard but found that he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the tree. In fact, he had to walk up to it, graze it with his fingertips.

“I want you to stay here. Do you understand me?” 

The hands that always held him, comforted him were now shoving Stefan into a dark hole in a tree. Tears fell from the little boy’s face at the thought of his daddy leaving him.

“Don’t leave me, Daddy,” he sobbed. “Please!” 

“If they find you, they will kill you.” 

Stefan wrenched out of the memory when a twig snapped just behind him. Hair started to sprout over his body at the sudden tension, knowing a fight was impending. This change was a special trait for his kind. One of the things that made all of them sought after for so many years as well as why they were called a shifter. The ability to change at will, unlike their ancestors. The only thing Stefan couldn’t control and hated was when he was in his heat. A painful sexual need that gripped him on the full moon.

He turned quickly and took hold of the man who was trying to sneak up on him. A new kind of adrenalin raced in his veins. His growl this time came out dangerous, primal. Stefan grabbed the guy by his throat and somehow managed to pick him up and slam him to the ground. The sudden desire to kill hit. The need to rip out this guy’s throat and watch him die for what they did to him was powerful.

Stefan gave in to his animal side and went for a deadly attack. He bent over and something struck him in the back of his neck. He howled and swung around to see two men with guns pointed at him. He tried to take a step closer, but dizziness prevented him.

Stefan dropped to the ground. He forced himself to roll onto his back. The change that almost happened to him receded. He was no longer the animal that they were searching for, but now a boy of nineteen.

“Get it back to the house.”

A foot landed on his chest while darkness closed over him. All Stefan could do was listen.

“And make sure you are damn quiet about it. I don’t want the house wakened.”

“What about our money?”

“Give him over to Mike. He has your money.” There was humor in that deep voice—humor and something sinister.

* * * *

Mike Stan waited outside the cellar door for the next test subject. For Mike, this was his first. Ever since hooking up years ago at a company party for Bailey Industries, he, and Martin had been partners. After the man showed Mike the suspected proof his father had, that werewolves were real, Mike was on board. To have the real thing in his hands would be his jackpot, one he planned to cash in as soon as they got what they needed from the subject now being brought in.

Mike couldn’t believe his luck really. To have one of those things stumble onto the property just waiting to be plucked was priceless. For Martin, though, this was his second attempt at catching one of these bastards. Martin’s father had supposedly caught one when Martin was a young man, but the damn thing caused part of the house to burn up, killing itself and Martin’s father. Something Mike had noticed about the man—he seemed to neither forgive nor forget. Martin was bent on taking out each and every one of those things one way or another.

Mike surveyed the men coming closer with their catch. He grinned when they dropped him at his feet. Tossing the men an envelope with their money, he smiled down at the package at his feet, waiting for them to go away so he could play. Mike used his foot and turned the thing over. He placed his hands on his hips, kneeling down. He didn’t even glance up when Martin walked up.

“He’s a boy,” Mike stated.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or not,” Martin said in disgust. “It’s an animal.”

“Then let’s get him in before someone sees us.”

* * * *

From the shadows of the night, Sidney Martin regarded her father and his colleague. She watched them pick up a boy and drag him into the lab, the same lab forbidden to her since she was six. She had figured out what her father was after a few months ago, but couldn’t really believe it until she found out about his past and about what happened to his father. Sidney didn’t believe her father when he told her the stories about werewolves. Werewolves did not exist, did they?

Sidney followed them, hoping against hope she didn’t get caught. She observed in the shadows as they chained a young man up to the wall. This boy was supposed to be the monster that her father hunted. She had noticed the young man was out cold. His hair was sandy brown and hung in long locks, touching the back of his neck, and it was plastered to his face. As Sidney stared and gave him the once-over, she found she could make out every muscle as it rippled beneath the T-shirt he wore.

“Come on,” her father stated. “I need to go up and get my files and something to drink.”

“Right behind you,” Mike said. “I want to get my plans.”

Sidney’s father chuckled. “Still planning on that cage?”

“Chains are not going to last forever.”

After they were sure the boy was secured, they left. Sidney pushed deeper into the shadows to ensure she couldn’t be seen. After a few minutes had passed, and the voices of her father and Mike faded, she stepped into the open and allowed her gaze to rest on the boy chained to the wall. Unable to resist, she moved closer to get a better look at him.

Sidney drew in a breath of surprise. There was not one inch of fat on his body. He was solid muscle, not seeming like a boy at all, but more like a man. His arms were so strong she could almost feel what it would be like to be wrapped up in them.

Luckily, for Sidney, the boy was still out cold. Whatever her father had given him seemed to be working. He hadn’t moved an inch. Her opportunity was short-lived. The dead stillness of a moment before broke when he made a sudden move, seeming to come out of his drugged state quickly.

He strained against the chains. Sidney flinched and took a step back, afraid of him. She feared he might free himself, and if that happened, she knew her father would blame her. Her heart pounded in her chest as she watched him test his bonds. Anxiety mixed with a new found excitement that raced through her system. Sidney felt as if she needed to get closer—until she heard him growl. With that sound, she felt a tiny bit of fear, the ferocious growl sent shivers of anticipation up her spine. When his head snapped up, Sidney backed away.

“Motherfucker!” he exploded angrily. “Dedrick is going to kill me for sure.”

She observed with eyes opened as wide as she could get them while he tried to work to loosen the chains then he stopped, looked around and his eyes landed on her, surveying her up and down. Ocean blue eyes bored into her—it was as if he could see her soul. Neither spoke and the uncomfortable silence forced her to glance away. When Sidney felt her breathing return to normal, she turned back to him and boldly met his gaze. The air became so thick she felt as if she were suffocating. She stepped back, ready to run, and found that she couldn’t. The room started to spin, and she couldn’t see through the haze. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, it was as if she were in a dream.

Mist filled the room, surrounding them. She couldn’t see him, but felt him. She knew he was close, but she couldn’t see him. Suddenly he was there in front of her. His face came into focus. He was clean-shaven, and his hair was tucked neatly behind his ears, away from his face. He advanced on her and didn’t stop when he reached her. He walked around her, studying every inch of her…

“Okay, let’s get started.”

Her father’s voice startled Sidney. She didn’t know what just happened. Taking a deep breath, she backed away into a different shadow. Sidney tried to slow her breathing and to steady her rapidly beating heart. As her father came back into the room, she noticed the man chained to the wall had not taken his eyes off her.

Until next time. She knew she heard it, but how, she didn’t know. Sidney quickly hid and paid silent attention to her father. There was something about the boy she couldn’t figure out. How could someone affect her so, have such an emotional impact on her? She didn’t know, couldn’t fathom it all nor the strange sensations radiating from him. They confused her. Why did she want to release him? Was it only to see what he would do? Mixed emotions raced inside her until a headache started to form.

Making sure her path was clear, and that her father had his full attention fixed on the boy, Sidney sneaked out of the lab. She ran to her room, feeling the anxiety of need, wanting to sneak back down there. A strong uncalled for desire to be with him plagued her. She wanted to watch and make sure her father didn’t hurt him too badly. Yet, she couldn’t. To do so would mean more trouble than she was prepared to handle. Instead of going back down, like she wanted, Sidney went to her bed and forced herself to get some sleep.

Four hours later, Sidney startled wake. Drenched in sweat, her heart pounding in her chest, she glanced around the room. Pleasure mixed with a need to go back down and see him settled over her, causing Sidney to toss and turn. She felt as if something deep in his soul was calling out to her, calling for her to go down and ease his pain with nothing more than her presence. Unable to resist the urge, she climbed out of bed and headed silently out of her room. The house was dark, but the usual quiet. Sidney could hear what was going on in the lab. Her father was yelling, and things were being thrown around.

“He should have changed by now!” her father screamed.

Sidney stopped at the doorway to listen to the conversation. She bit her lip, feeling some fear for the young man. She knew what her father was like. She knew that when he wanted something bad enough, he would never stop, even if that meant the boy had to die.

“It’s midnight. Let’s wait and see what happens in the morning.” Mike spoke with a chilly calm; the kind that made a person instinctively understand that there was something very cruel hidden within him.

“The bastard should have changed, I tell you!”

“Well, killing him won’t get our proof.”

“And letting him live won’t change the world, either,” Martin snapped back.

“Come on,” Mike joked, slapping Martin so hard on the back that Sidney could hear it. “Let’s just go back upstairs. Buy you a drink?”

Her father laughed then. “Out of my cabinet, I bet?”

“Of course. I don’t have any money.” Mike laughed.

Sidney’s heart pounded so loud she feared one of them would hear it as they strolled by. Only when she heard the door close did she let out the breath she didn’t even know she had been holding.

* * * *

Stefan took a deep breath of relief, and then he grinned. She was back. He could not only sense her, but he smelled the sweet scent that was all her, a scent he wanted to embrace and drape all over him.

“Are you going to come out, little mouse?”

Stefan followed her with heated eyes. He grinned when he heard her sneak down the stairs. The faint light touched her. He allowed the new, raw emotions to wash over him. Stefan believed she was everything he ever thought he wanted and so much more. Perfection was such a mild term for what he saw in her, yet that was what she was. She was every dream he had come true.

Stefan closed his eyes and took another deep breath. Since the moment he first experienced his heat, he waited for her. Waited for the one to come and ease him—fulfill him. The one girl that could ignite not only his passion, desire, and soul, but the one who would also show him the love he was missing. Even though Stefan had a close family, his mother wasn’t completely able to show him or give him the kind of love that a father would.

It was the responsibility of the father in the family to show and help with all his male children to deal with their heat and how to go about finding, claiming and loving their mate, but with his father dead, Stefan had to learn it all on his own. The biological system of the males of his race was very simple for the most part. The animal in them lay dormant until they hit puberty. At that time, all male shifters go into heat during the full moon—a sexual need. Only their mate is able to control it and handle it completely. Before a shifter male finds his mate, they can use any female they chose to take the edge off the heat. After finding his true mate, when his animal comes into any contact with her all bets are off. Only she will do, no other.

Stefan was told once by his best friend’s father that when he felt slightly out of control and a side of him that he never knew of before started to come out, he would know his mate was close. Stefan felt the beast inside of him raging now to go and claim, to take what it believed is rightfully his, which was the girl now standing in the same room with him. Stefan felt on edge right now—he wanted to change into the animal that lingered inside of him. He felt as if he could rip the chains from the walls, felt the burning lust creeping into his system, threatening to come out.

Her hair was long, almost golden in color. Her green eyes held her innocence. His mouth watered at the sight of her skin. It almost begged to be touched. She was holding herself in such a way that Stefan could tell she had no confidence in herself. Stefan knew all she needed was to be loved. He could see it in her eyes, the lack of affection in her life. He felt the need to wrap his arms around her and hold her tightly, to show her there was someone out there meant for her, that someone was willing to hold her all night long and to take all her fears away. Someone like him.

“There she is,” he purred. My dream come true, he finished in his head.

“You’re the thing my father has been searching for, aren’t you?” she asked, fear in her eyes. “Some kind of animal.”

“Shouldn’t someone start the conversation with a hello?” He smiled at her, his gaze roaming over her entire body. “No, I guess they wouldn’t, considering how things are at the moment, me being chained to a wall and all. I suspect your father has told you he captured the big bad wolf, and if you come down here I will eat you up.” He licked his lips. “Not that it wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“My father doesn’t know I’m down here, and he hasn’t told me a thing.”

“I can believe he doesn’t know you are here, but…tsk-tsk, I doubt he hasn’t told you what he has found. What man wouldn’t brag about a prize such as this?” He strained again with his chains, mostly to show her that he was being held tightly and wouldn’t be lunging at her any time soon.

* * * *

His voice was so deep she could feel the words reverberate through her body. It was another test for him, one to see if she was indeed his.

“What did he do to you?” Sidney’s voice lowered to a whisper.

He glanced down at his body. His shirt was gone, showing Sidney the many cuts on his bare chest.

“A little experiment,” he told her.

Sidney shook her head. “He wouldn’t do that. Mike maybe, but not my father.”

“Mike’s the brains, but your dad is the money, baby. Deal with it,” he angrily replied.

He took a deep breath, showing her every one of his muscles as they moved. She stared at him as he flexed his arms as much as he could and closed his hands into fists then relaxed them.

“What are you?” she asked, getting frustrated at the game he was playing.

He grinned, teasing her. “Oh, I can be anything you want me to be. Just name it, and I’m it.”

“Stop playing games and answer my question,” she snapped, running her hands through her hair. Sidney turned her back on him. She took several deep breaths. When she turned back around, she tried a different approach. “Please.”

“Such manners,” he said and smiled. Even being chained to the wall, his voice had a sense of humor. “And what makes you think I am playing a game?” All humor suddenly left him and he boldly met her gaze. “Your father isn’t playing.”

“I want to know what he wants with you.” She heard her frustration when she spoke. “He just doesn’t take boys off of the street for no reason. Were you trespassing on the grounds? Did you steal something? What does he want?”

“You ask a lot of questions.” His eyes captured hers and his voice lowered into a deep growl. “Sidney.”

Sidney stilled. Real, raw fear gripped her at the sound of her name on his lips. She took a step back, watching him with caution. “How…how do you know my name?

He inhaled deeply. “Sweet.” His voice changed more. Deeper, thicker, more in need. His eyes closed and his breathing changed, coming harder and more labored.

“What?”

Stefan opened his eyes, cocking his head to one side. Eyes, with a hint of red in them looked at her heatedly. “You smell sweet. Pure.” He took another deep breath. “Untouched.” Again, he licked his lips and his eyes went up and down her body. “You’re dreams give you away when someone like me is searching.”

When he met her gaze, a shiver went down her spine. Words didn’t come, and the thought of leaving never crossed her mind. All Sidney could do was stand there and stare at him.

“What do you dream about, Sidney?” he purred. “Do you dream about the knight in shining armor, or are your dreams more sensual? Lovers holding hands, kissing under the full moon or setting sun. I want to know, Sidney, what runs in your veins at night?”

She stiffened and took another step back. “How did you know my name?” she demanded again, anger filled her voice, giving her a new kind of courage, allowing her to take a few steps closer.

“I know a lot about you,” he stated in a bored, matter-of-fact voice. “You’re longing, or loneliness opens doors to your dreams.  I’ve seen those dreams, Sidney. I’ve been in those dreams. You know me, just as well as I know you.”

“You know nothing.” Tears started to form in her eyes as she swung around, giving him her back again. She was hurt and angry at the same time. Why, she didn’t know.

“I know you are only seventeen,” he told her softly. “And if I have read it right, your father pushes you aside. Everything but you comes first. Even the lab. I’m more important right now than you—to him, at least.”

“That’s not true,” she whispered. “He loves me in his way.”

Sidney thought about the way her father loved her, and knew it wasn’t love. He put up with her, used her, and this boy was right. He probably was more important than she was.

“He can’t love himself,” he said, lowering his voice carryingly. “How can you expect him to love you?”

Sidney shook her head, her back still to him. She could feel the tears falling. Deep down, she knew that everything he said was true. Her father didn’t love her. Not the way he should.

“He’ll never change,” he went on gently. “Nothing in this world will ever make him love and cherish you the way you should be loved,” he said, his voice as soft as a caress.

“Shut up,” she whispered, fighting her tears. More tears fell, causing Sidney to head back to the stairs, but his voice stopped her.

“I’m the one you need,” he growled. “I’m the one you’re going to dream about, hunger for at night to take away the chill of being alone. Me!”

Sidney stopped as her foot landed on the first step. Her hands started to shake and she felt as if she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. “No.” she breathed out.

“I know your dreams, Sidney. You see me in them” His voice was calm and sure.

“No. I see no one in my dreams.” Sidney shook her head. “No one.”

He took another deep breath and then rattled his chains noisily. Sidney turned back to see him yanking at them. He met her gaze. “It calls to me. It beckons the animal.” With his eyes shifting in color again, hair began to sprout on his face. “That scent!” His head went back, and he took deep, panting breaths like an animal. “God, I love your scent!”

Sidney moved away from the steps and back toward him. “What did you say?” she asked with deadly calm.

The humor in his eyes was gone. All that was there now was raw emotion. Emotion Sidney didn’t want to have to admit to. She didn’t want to feel the attraction to him that she was feeling, didn’t want to think about those arms wrapping around her body, holding her, comforting her. She sure as hell didn’t want to think about those lips kissing all her tears away.

“You heard me,” he told her. His voice was rough. She could hear the need in the deep timbre. Slowly, she raised her gaze to him and was held entranced by the way they kept changing back and forth from blue to a deep red.

Looking at him, Sidney felt like she was in a kind of hallucination. Her mind swirled with the thoughts that assaulted her suddenly. What would it be like to touch him? How would his skin feel? Would his kiss be soft and sweet? Or hard and violent? Almost like him. She’d never been kissed before, and a sudden longing to have her first one be with this man overwhelmed her.

“I can make your every fantasy…your every dream come true,” he purred.

* * * *

The air suddenly felt thin. Mist filled everything, leaving sight of anything impossible. Sidney found herself back in the dark room. Glancing around, she saw nothing. Sidney turned around in the hopes of holding onto something, yet nothing was there. When she turned back around, she came face to face with him.

He was so close she could feel his breath on her, and it made her body burn. A new sensation filled her until Sidney felt as though she was going to die from pleasure. His hands stroked her bare shoulders, drawing her into his arms. His breath brushed her neck, his lips so close she wanted to beg for their touch.

“Watch me touch you.” 

Her eyes opened to stare at his hand. She followed it, felt the feather caress to her neck, shivered as it moved down her body to the lace of the white chemise that rested against her thigh.

“You are a dream come true,” he purred. 

One hand trailed down her body, and the other slid up her leg. Her head fell back at the feel of his hand under her chemise. Still, he didn’t put his lips on her, but she knew they were close.

A moan escaped her lips when he touched her lower between her legs. He stroked her with soft persuasion and gentle passion. She tingled with a strange wet sensation, wanting and waiting for him to embrace her, almost to the point of begging him. He took two fingers and lightly rubbed her on the outside of the lips, not stroking what most craved his caress This was how she had always dreamed it would be, since her maturing mind and body learned to need.

This was what she wanted the most. Someone to make her care—to be part of her life.

When he finally slipped a finger inside her, she almost climaxed right then. So absorbed in the new feelings going through her, Sidney didn’t notice a strap from the nightie had slipped off, exposing one breast to him. Something was keeping her mind and all feelings focused on what was going on at that moment.

He pressed her clit, touched her more intimately and she cried out. She was wound so tight, she held on to him, afraid that if she let go, she would be lost in this world, his world.

“Say you will be mine, Sidney,” he whispered in her ear. “Say it and I will let you find the release you need.”

Again, he fingered her clit and touched her intimately. “No man will have what is mine, or touch you the way I will.”

Sidney felt the mist start to subside. She wanted to say the words that would give her the needed release and pleasure. However, something was breaking the connection between them. Someone was calling her, dissolving the spell that he had woven around them.

“Sidney!”

Sidney dropped to her knees as the breath rushed out of her. Weak and drained, she couldn’t resist the strong arms that picked her up and carried her from the room. All she could do was open her eyes and look at the boy chained to the wall. The heated expression he gave her was enough to send chills racing down her spine. Halfway up the stairs, she heard a deep growl of warning.

“No man shall touch you ever!” whispered through her mind before her eyes closed on their own.  You are mine!

When Sidney opened her eyes, she saw that she was back in her bed with Mike looming over her. How much time had passed, she didn’t know. She tried to sit up. “What happened?” The dizziness forced her to lie back down.

“I think he did some kind of mind connection,” Mike stated. “I have heard of it, but I’ve never seen it. Until now.”

“What is that?” Confusion was in her voice. Sidney didn’t understand what that boy was doing down there, and she knew she didn’t understand what Mike had just said. She wanted to scream out with the pain of the confusion that raged in her mind. She turned pleading eyes to Mike.

“He was seducing your mind.” Mike seemed grim as he spoke. When he finally glanced at her, the kindness that he had always shown her was back in his eyes. “Why did you go down there, Sid?”

Sidney shrugged. She worked hard at keeping her face clear of any emotion. “I don’t know.” She pressed the pad of both hands into her eyes, trying to press away the headache that was gripping her. “I felt—it felt—I don’t know.” She dropped her hands and Mike was looking at her strangely. “What is it, Mike?” Sidney watched him. The way he kept his eyes on her made her uncomfortable. She had never been that way around Mike before, but now something was off.

Mike never got the chance to answer. They heard a scream come from the basement followed by a deep growl. Mike rose from the bed and ran from the room without a glance back at Sidney, who tried to get up. When she fell once again, she felt him in her head.

“When you are ready, I will come for you. You are mine! Always!”

Sidney closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The moment her mind cleared again, she opened eyes and almost screamed. The boy who had been chained to the wall stood at the end of the bed, clutching the jacket she had seen earlier in his hand. He smiled at her then tossed the jacket to her. Before she could say a word, he started to climb on the bed. The power in his arms as he held his body above hers amazed her.

“I can make one small dream of yours come true right now.”

Excitement hit Sidney, and her eyes widened when he lowered his head to brush his lips over hers. The kiss was quick and light, but a kiss no less, and it was her first one.

“Don’t forget,” he whispered in her mind. “Mine always.” 

Sidney closed her eyes and waited while he climbed off the bed. Her heart pounded and her lips started to tingle from her first kiss. Ten minutes passed before she noticed she clutched something tightly in her hand. It was the jacket. There was no need to go back to the basement. She knew he was gone.

* * * *

Stefan stumbled into the dark foyer of his home, naked, bruised, and bent over slightly. Natasha watched him from the side of the stairs in a dark corner, feeling her anger rise with each step he took. It wasn’t a full moon, so in her eyes, there was no damn reason for him to be out hunting, but deep down, she knew hunting wasn’t what he was about. He was there, back at the woods where her mate, his father, had been taken and killed.

Natasha strolled out of the shadows, head held high, shoulders back in her anger and walked up to him. “Where have you been?” she demanded.

“I went back to that house, Mother. I had to see if they still lived there or not,” he answered, swaying on his feet.

Natasha slapped him as hard as she could across his face. The blow knocked him to his knees. Natasha was a little woman, but she held major power in their house. “You promised me you’d stay away from that place,” she hissed in full anger. “I will not lose you like I did your father.”

Stefan stayed down on his knees before his mother’s feet, head hung down low. “I had to go.”

Natasha turned her back on him. Rage filled her delicate body. She was so angry that she shook. “Going back to that place will not ease your pain, and revenge will do nothing but blacken your heart.” She started to pace, then stopped, turned and knelt down in front of him, taking his face in her hands. “I miss him as much as you do, Stefan. Your father was my heart, but you children are my life. If I lose one of you, then there won’t be much more left.”

Stefan gazed into her eyes and smiled. “I found her,” he whispered.

Natasha frowned, not knowing what to say.

“I found my mate,” he went on, clutching at her arms.

“No, Stefan.” Natasha barely got the words out, shaking her head. “Tell me it isn’t…”

“It is, Mother.” He stood, leaving her on the floor. “And I’m going to claim her.”

Natasha glanced up at him, not wanting to believe or face what her son had said. For him to go back to the place—the house of Conner Martin—where her beloved had died and then come home to tell her he had found his mate was something Natasha knew would be devastating for their family.

“Who is she?” She knew even before he stood up who he was going to say.

“Her name is Sidney.”

“Martin?” She peered up into his eyes, waiting for the nod that would confirm it all.

“Yes.”

Natasha lowered her eyes and stayed on the floor, allowing Stefan to go up to his room.

“Stefan.” Natasha stopped him halfway up the stairs. She didn’t look at him, or stand, but knew she had his full attention. “Be sure about this.” She turned, and gazed at him. “This choice you are making could start a war, one that could cost us everything we hold dear.”

Natasha stood and strolled up to him slowly. Though not looking at his bared body, she took his dirty, bruised face in her hands, regarding him closely, seeing her beloved in his eyes. “Be careful,” she whispered. “I don’t want to see you hurt.” She kissed him gently on the cheek, then went up to her room, leaving him standing on the stairs.

 

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