When Wyatt turns his back on the world—and her—Gillian knows he’s hurting and needs time to recover from whatever wounds were inflicted on his bear by the military. He reluctantly accepts her help as they flee from a secret group sent to eliminate the shifter-soldiers involved in a black-ops experiment, though he’s determined to maintain an emotional distance from her. But bears mate for life, and his human mate is just as stubborn as he is. Nothing could hurt her more than losing him, and she’s just the one to help her wounded warrior move from the past and into the future—if they have a future…
“Were you even going to say goodbye?”
Wyatt stiffened in the process of shoving the last box into the back of his Jeep. The familiar tone of his mate had startled him, indicating his bear was buried deep, as he’d planned. He should have felt guilt at her words, but he didn’t feel much of anything. He steeled himself as he turned to face her, forcing away remorse when he saw her stricken expression. “It’s better this way.”
Gillian put her hands on her curvy hips, glaring at him. “Better for whom? We’re supposed to be getting married, and you’re just going to leave?”
He drew back his shoulders, trying to hide any hint of defensiveness. “The marriage proposal was made after we finished high school. A lot’s changed in eight years.”
Her big green eyes shimmered with tears, but he knew her well enough to know she’d fight letting them fall to the bitter end. Whenever she got angry, she had the urge to cry. He could tell she was furious with him, but also hurt and bewildered. He didn’t need his bear’s sense of smell detecting her pheromones to tell him that. If he concentrated, he could have discerned that information with his bear, but he was trying to suppress his bear instincts, and not call them forth.
“When we were thirteen years old, you told me I was your mate. That hasn’t changed. It doesn’t change for bear-shifters.”
He winced, remembering the moment to which she was referring. It was shortly after his bear had started stirring in his head, and one day he looked at his classmate—a girl he’d known all his life, since they’d grown up in the same small town—and she had been different. His bear had growled possessively in his head, and he’d known then she belonged with them.
With all the sensitivity and subtlety of a Mack truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant, he had cornered her after school one day and told her about his revelation. At first, she had been skeptical, but then he’d shifted for her, and after that secret was out, she hadn’t doubted his bear’s sense any longer. She’d known from then she was his mate, and they had been together ever since, aside from the years they’d separated after high school while he was in the military, only coming home briefly for leaves.
Even then, she hadn’t shown any sign of doubt. Even as he’d become more withdrawn, she remained resolute. He hadn’t seen her at all for the last three years, when the military suddenly withdrew his team’s permission to leave the base, unless they were on a mission, but when he did finally come home, she’d been waiting.
She’d been wasting her time. He was a new man, and his bear was only a sullen presence in his head occasionally now. He needed it to be that way, and after what had happened that afternoon, he had to leave and get as far away from people as he could, including Gillian.
Realizing he had never answered her, he said, “My bear’s practically nonexistent these days. I’m not going to hold you to an old promise.”
Her glare deepened. “I want to be held to that promise. I’ve been waiting for you. Even when you lost contact and stopped calling or visiting, I knew there had to be a good reason. I haven’t given up on us.”
He forced himself to sound completely unemotional, though there was more than a twinge of regret when he uttered the words he had to say, “I have. I’m leaving.”
A single tear escaped, and he knew it must have cost her a great deal to let it out. “Why are you leaving? It doesn’t make sense. You’ve only been back a few weeks. You won’t talk about what happened, and you barely allow me to see you. Now you’re leaving? Tell me what’s going on, Wyatt.”
He focused on the most pertinent question. “You saw what happened this afternoon. I nearly killed Clayton Walsh.”
She waved a hand, as though that wasn’t a concern. “Clayton Walsh is a jackass, and he was about to hit his pregnant wife. You did the right thing interceding.”
Some of the emotions he tried to suppress surged to the forefront, including a strong dose of anger. “Interceding was the right thing, but shifting into the bear and laying into him until six townsfolk had to pull me off wasn’t. It wasn’t my place to render a verdict or dole out justice. I crossed the line from protecting someone to nearly killing someone else. I can’t control the bear, so I have to get away from people.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, her expression placid. “Fine. I’ll come with you then.”
Wyatt shook his head, turning away from her to finish loading his things and closing the cargo door before turning back to her. “You can’t come with me.”
“We promised forever,” she said in a clear, strong voice.
He stared at her. “We were thirteen, and everything is different now.”
She shook her head. “I refuse to believe you simply stopped loving me despite whatever happened to you. I want to be there for you and help you get through this. If you feel like you need to get away from people, we’ll go somewhere with just the two of us.”
“I’m not safe to be around.” His words came out as more of a growl than actual syllables, and he could feel his control wavering. “I could hurt you.”
She shook her head. “You’d never do that.”
Before he could stop himself, he surged forward, one hand clamped around her throat as he dragged her closer to him. He allowed some of the turbulence inside to show in his eyes as his hair bristled, starting to turn to fur on his arms. “I can’t control it. I have to get rid of it, and until I do, I’m a danger to everyone I’m around.”
Considering how he was holding her, and his obvious anger, she appeared remarkably calm. “What do you mean, get rid of it?”
“The bear,” he said with another snarl as he pushed her away suddenly. “I can’t control it. They did things to me…” He trailed off, having no intention of sharing his nightmare with his mate.
No, she wasn’t his mate anymore. She had been identified by the bear, and he had to excise everything that had anything to do with that side of his nature, including Gillian.
“You can’t just get rid of half of your nature. The bear’s part of you. Please let me help you, Wyatt.” She held out a hand to him as she spoke, her voice trembling.
He looked away from her, too tempted to give in for just a moment. Only a brief moment spent imagining her broken and torn body after his bear gained the upper hand and turned on her allowed him to withstand the pleading in her voice and the need in her eyes. “I can’t take you with me. Don’t you understand it would destroy me if I did something to hurt you? What if I killed you?”
She sniffled, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hands. “I’m sure you’d never do that.”
“And I’m just as sure that I could. You have to let me go, Gillian, because I can’t stay.”
She shook her head. “I’ll go with you,” she said again.
“If you still love me at all, and you seem to, you have to let me do the right thing. Turn around and walk away, unless you want to see me driving out of town. Say goodbye now and forget about me.”
Sadness appeared in her expression, and this time when tears flooded her eyes, she made no attempt to hold them in check. He could tell the difference from her angry tears, and if he’d been able to feel much of anything, her face would have broken his heart just then. Luckily for both of them, as he’d spent time distancing himself from the bear, it had also blunted his emotions, and he wasn’t able to feel her pain deeply enough to allow it to sway him.
Without another word to her, he turned away and walked around to the front of the Jeep. He started the vehicle and pulled forward. In a moment of weakness, he allowed himself one final glance in the rearview mirror. He was unsurprised to see Gillian still standing there, arms crossed over her chest, and tears streaming down her face. It was a heart-wrenching site, but he kept going, in fact pressing the accelerator harder down to the floorboard.
Leaving her was the right thing, the only thing he could do to ensure she remained safe. She’d get over him. Gillian was just a human, so she didn’t feel the mate bond that his bear recognized. He didn’t feel it very much at the moment either, and he was relieved for the reprieve. He had enough guilt on his conscience that he didn’t want to add another face to the long list that paraded through his mind. He was certain Gillian was bound to pop up anyway, but at least he knew he was doing the right thing even if it hurt her.
He drove straight through Spring Hills without looking at the buildings lining the tiny Main Street. He kept his gaze focused straight ahead, except for when he reached one of the town’s two four-way stops. He glanced briefly from left to right to determine it was clear and kept going. Soon enough, Spring Hills was little more than dust behind his wheels.
He was about thirty minutes out of the town when he realized he couldn’t completely disappear. There might be a genuine emergency. It was just him and Garrett left now, since their parents had both passed on, but he couldn’t leave without telling his brother where he was going.
He pulled over to the side of the dark road, leaving his headlights on to cut a swath through the thickness of the night, and extracted his cell phone from his pocket. He dialed his younger brother’s number, and Garrett answered on the second ring, sounding tired. A glance at the clock revealed it was after eleven p.m., and his brother had no doubt been asleep for a while, since he was still attending the family farm and ranch. “I’m leaving, Garrett.”
All trace of sleep disappeared from Garrett’s voice when he answered. “For how long this time, Wyatt? Did the government call you back to service?”
“I’m leaving forever. I can’t be around people. I wanted you to know where I’m going to be, but you aren’t allowed to tell anyone, and you can only contact me if it’s a true emergency.”
“I’ve been expecting this,” said Garrett softly. “Where are you headed?”
“The bugout cabin high in the mountains.”
Garrett let out a low whistle through his teeth. “I don’t think Mom and Pop finished building everything before they passed. It’s probably a mess up there. Unlivable.”
“I’ll make it work. You know where to find me, but don’t look unless you absolutely have to.”
“What about Gillian? Is she with you?”
“No, and she won’t be. Most of all, you can’t tell her where I’m at, and I need your word on that.”
Shock bled through Garrett’s voice. “She’s your mate, and you can’t just turn your back on her.”
“She’s not my mate anymore. I released her from the promise, and I have to turn my back on everything if I’m going to survive—and if people will survive me.”
“You’re making a mistake. She’s your mate. Your bear told you that years ago. You can’t just undo that.”
“Watch me,” said Wyatt coldly. “Do I have your word? If not, I’ll find somewhere else to stay, and you won’t have any means to contact me.”
With what sounded like a heavy sigh, his younger brother capitulated. “Fine, I won’t tell anyone where you are or try to find you unless it’s a dire emergency.”
“Especially Gillian,” he prompted.
“Especially Gillian,” repeated Garrett with obvious exasperation. “I still say you’re making a mistake.”
“It’s a good thing it’s mine to make then,” said Wyatt with a hint of coldness. He didn’t bother with goodbyes. He simply hung up the phone, rolled down his window, and tossed it onto the road. Though he had been suppressing his bear as much as possible, he still had a keen sense of hearing and eyesight, and he both saw and heard the flimsy device shatter as soon as it hit the asphalt. With a nod of satisfaction, he rolled up his window, put the car in gear, and kept driving without allowing even one more look behind him.