Cavanaugh mastered his fear and drove it back into submission, clearing his head of the dark words that taunted him and steadying his heart, reassuring himself that all wasn’t lost. Eloise was here with him. She had come for him. He needed to focus on taking care of her and discovering what had happened to her to bring her to London, a world away from their village in the mountains of Bhutan.
“What are you doing away from the pride?” He ventured a step towards her and was thankful when she didn’t move away to maintain the distance between them. He needed to be close to her. He needed reality to sink in so he could believe she was here with him, standing in the bright back room of Underworld, and he was talking to her for the first time since he had assumed the role of alpha a decade ago, about to hear her sweet voice again. “What happened to you?”
He reached out and gently caught her wrist, bringing it up between them and luring her towards him. He lightly rubbed his thumb over the scarring on it, marks that looked as if they had been made by ropes. Who had done this to her? Whoever it had been, Cavanaugh was going to find them and tear them to pieces. He was going to make them suffer as she had. A growl rumbled through his chest and curled up his throat, born of a dark and consuming hunger to avenge her.
She pulled free of his grip and hid her arms behind her back.
“Goddammit, Eloise,” he barked and she lowered her head, turning her face away from him.
The rich brown waves of her long hair fell down to conceal her face but didn’t hide how her shoulders trembled beneath her dirty coat. He reined in his frustration. He could sense her struggle, could smell it in the subtle changes in her scent. It was taking a lot for her to remain silent when she felt compelled to obey the rules of their kind and answer him.
Why wouldn’t she answer him? He needed to know what had happened to her. It filled him completely, an incessant urge that he couldn’t shake, born of his deep connection to her. He feared he would go mad or lose his temper if she insisted on remaining silent and refused to tell him what had happened to her.
He would go mad if she refused to look at him or give him the pleasure of hearing her voice too. Couldn’t she see that?
He clenched his fists at his sides to stop himself from grabbing her slender shoulders and making her look at him, and looked at her instead, seeing how different she was now. He missed the female who had stood up to him countless times and had put him in his place. That woman seemed to have disappeared that fateful night when he had recognised her as his fated female but hadn’t been given a chance to tell her. She had been ripped from his grasp when he had been forced to take his place in the pride upon his father’s death, picking up his mantle.
Cavanaugh felt as if he had lost her then and his heart had fractured. She had drifted away from him, always leaving when the females of status within the pride approached him, even when he had yearned for her to stay.
He had ached for her to look at him and smile, and let him know that she was okay.
He hadn’t wanted the attention from the females. He had wanted hers. He had wanted them, as they should have been, together.
He had craved her.
Still craved her.
“Why are you here?” he whispered, still aching for her to look at him and smile, and let him know that she was okay.
He ached to hear her voice again and hear her tell him that she had come for him. He needed her to put him out of his misery. He needed her to tell him that nothing had changed between them despite everything that had happened and that there was a chance for him. He needed it as he had never needed anything before, as if it was as vital as air in his lungs or a beat in his chest. She had power over him as no other did. Not even the male who had come close to defeating him could contend with her.
She had the power to crush him, to kill him.
And she did it with only a handful of words.
“Please come back to the pride.”
Those words struck his already aching heart like daggers, each one sending pain blazing outwards from the centre of his chest.
She hadn’t come for him because she had wanted to be with him. He had been a fool to allow his heart to convince him that she’d had the courage he had lacked and had come to wait out the days with him until they could be together again.
She was here on pride business.
“You came all this way to ask me that?” He frowned at her, his tone flat and as empty as he felt inside as everything sank in. Nothing had changed. Five years of hell followed by five years of torture, and they still had a wall between them, a barrier that seemed impenetrable. He wanted to tear it down, but it was intangible, constructed of tradition and rules that went back millennia, laws that were so ingrained in them that they couldn’t break free and were slaves to them. “I left the pride, Eloise. I have no interest in returning to it. I have no reason to go back there. The pride doesn’t need me. It has an alpha.”
“The pride needs you.” She lifted her head a fraction and he thought she might look him in the eye and put a little fire behind her words, but she remained meek and polite.
The way a female of her status should speak to her alpha.
He growled and stalked towards her, and she backed away, turning more submissive as she wrapped her arms around herself.
“The pride doesn’t need me.” He stopped short of saying that she did though, and he needed her. He reached out to seize her arm but she flinched away, stopping him in his tracks. He softened and looked at her, seeing a broken and hurt female, not the strong and confident one she had been a decade ago. Fury filled him, burning fiercely in his veins, flooding him with a need to know what had happened to her. That need blazed in his heart, demanding that he ask her and make her answer him this time. “What the hell happened to you, Eloise? Who did this to you?”
She swallowed hard and finally looked up at him, right into his eyes, but still refused to tell him. “The pride needs you. You’re the strongest male and our alpha. Please. Return with me.”
“I told you. I’m not interested in returning.” He wanted to reach out and smooth his hand along the soft curve of her jaw to keep her golden-brown eyes on him, but he didn’t have the heart when she looked as if it was taking her great effort not to lower her gaze again.
“I travelled two years to find you… to bring you back to the pride.”
He wished she had stopped at the first part, where she had only travelled two years to find him.
The pain in her eyes increased, her fear a palpable thing now that hung in the air between them, and it forced him to listen. What had happened at the pride? Concern for his village grew in his heart but concern for Eloise overshadowed it, pulling the focus of his thoughts back to her.
She must have searched for him across Bhutan, India and Europe, no doubt flashing his photograph to any fae or demon she came across. What terrible thing had happened to drive her to such a desperate and dangerous act?
Had she gained her scars during her search for him? Had some of the fae or demons captured her and held her for some nefarious reason?
He growled again, unable to contain it as he pictured her bound and afraid. His claws grew, emerging as he thought about hunting down whoever had hurt her and tearing into them. He wanted their blood on his hands. The scent of Eloise’s fear grew stronger and he pulled down a deep breath to steady himself, not wanting to frighten her with his anger.
Cavanaugh looked her over again, self-reproach burning through him as her voice ran around his head, taunting him.
Her journey would have been a difficult one, and not only because she had never left their homeland and had no experience of the world. Her position in the pride meant she had very little money, only a small allowance that he knew she had been saving her entire life. It wouldn’t have been enough to cover luxuries like flights and hotels or even restaurants.
Her tattered clothing, her fatigue and how much weight she had lost since the last time he had seen her all confirmed his worst fears. She had spent two years living rough, sleeping on the streets or in hostels and travelling by foot, by hitchhiking or by jumping trains.
The thought of his little female living in such a fashion, day-to-day, probably stealing food and fearing for her safety, cut him right down to his soul and had his heart burning with a need to gather her into his arms and somehow take away every terrible experience she must have had.
It was his fault.
He had ventured far from the mountains and the pride village. If he hadn’t left Bhutan, she could have easily found him. She wouldn’t have been forced to spend years travelling and tracking him down.
If he had gone back for her—no, he couldn’t think like that. He had warred with himself at the time about it and it had played on his mind ever since.
It had been too dangerous.
He had fought Stellan countless times and had always driven the male back into submission.
Except the last time.
That time he had allowed the male to defeat him.