“Come home with me, Leah.”
The sleek, silver-furred female wolf growled lowly and paced back and forth over the rocky terrain, her tail swishing back and forth in an agitated manner.
Jacob didn’t have to hear words or be in her mind to know her answer was no.
He stood naked before her, but that wasn’t what bothered him. Even though her tail was wagging, he could tell by the sharp glint in her deep amber eyes if he took one more step toward her he’d regret it. As a wolf, he was bigger and heavier—quite a bit stronger—but she was just that much faster. And that’s all it would take for her to get her teeth in his throat. He didn’t think she’d kill him, but he wasn’t one hundred percent sure.
He knew how she felt when she’d left. While in their Spirit Warrior forms, he had been submerged in her rage. He knew the depths of her pain, and the struggle with the ache of loss—the guilt that crept in around the edges of almost every thought, or ambushed from dark corners.
Her lover Sam had imprinted on her cousin Emily. She had felt betrayed and abandoned.
Then she had phased into a wolf, and her father had had a heart attack. She thought she may as well have plunged a knife into his chest.
Jacob knew the guilt ate at her.
When she had seen how Sam had been captured by the imprint, doubly held hostage by their gods, she had known there wasn’t anything he could do about it. It wasn’t his fault. That was when more guilt overtook her.
He knew why she had left. She’d been gone long enough. He’d come to take her home.
Pulling the ragged cut-off sweats from his leg, he yanked them on. Knowing he was finally getting closer to Leah, he’d stolen the shorts and an extra-extra-large T-shirt from an unattended clothesline. It had taken months and months for him to chase her down, and after his humiliatingly long temper tantrum back when Bella had agreed to marry the leech, he knew clothes didn’t hold up well to the abuse of being tied to a wolf’s leg. He hadn’t brought any with him.
He felt bad about stealing, but he didn’t have much choice if he didn’t want to be naked. He knew well how Leah felt about it.
“You’ve been gone a long time. I brought you a gift.” He tossed the wadded up T-shirt toward her. “I stole it just for you.”
The feeble attempt at some humor fell flat. The only reply was a set of wickedly sharp fangs snapping shut.
He dropped to the ground, crossing his legs and resting his elbows on his knees. He was so tired; he could hardly hold his head up. He didn’t even try. He propped his forehead on his hand and closed his eyes.
“Leah, I know how you feel about being a wolf. I know what it’s like to lose a parent.” At her angry yelp, he amended his statement. “Well, my mom died in a car crash. She didn’t have a heart attack right in front—”
Leah’s snarl made his ears ring.
Not looking up at her because he didn’t want to see the animosity in her eyes, he whispered. “I know. It’s not the same.” He sighed wearily. “The whole time I was tracking you, I was wondering what I could say to get you to come back. I still don’t have any idea. I’ll just tell you what’s been going on, okay?” His hand slid down his face and he looked cautiously through his fingers at her.
Leah had leapt up onto a large boulder and was staring down at him. Her heated gaze had cooled somewhat, and when she lay down; Jacob took that as permission to speak. Maybe she was lonely enough to listen. It had been years since she left.
At least she wasn’t going to rip him into dog chow just yet. He scooted backward until he could lean back against the trunk of a large pine. As much humanity as they retained in their wolf form, looking directly at her would still make her uncomfortable. His head dropped back and he stared up into the boughs above him.
“First, I want to say I’m sorry I didn’t come looking for you right after you left. I was so wrapped up in … stuff, I barely even thought about you. I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes again. “Seth wanted to go after you, but I alpha ordered him and told him he couldn’t. About a year after you left, he met his imprint in Seattle.”
Leah blew out a loud, wetly rude snort that time. It wasn’t like he, or anyone else, wasn’t aware of Leah’s opinion of imprinting. He ignored the comment.
“We’d gone there to the movies—it was far enough away from Forks we thought nobody would recognize any of the Cullens.” At Leah’s fresh growl, Jacob thought he’d better move the story along. “Anyhow, Seth goes up to pay for his ticket and bingo, the girl taking the money was his imprint. Her name is Wanda and she just loves Seth so damn much.” He could almost hear Leah’s who wouldn’t?
“Um, they had a kid—a girl—and named her Marcy Leah. Yeah, you’re an aunt.” Jacob chuckled lightly. “Old Quil wasn’t real happy about Wanda being half Native American and half African American, but when he saw that little baby … She totally has him wrapped around her finger. It’s disgusting.” Jacob’s smile widened. “As soon as Seth turned eighteen, they got married. He must have had a power surge or something on the honeymoon. Nine months later they had another little girl. They named her April Dawn. So, you’re an aunt again. Your mom is thrilled.” Jacob didn’t even need to see Leah. He could just about feel her longing and sadness.
She’d always wanted kids of her own. Sam phasing into a wolf had certainly destroyed a big part of her dreams. Then she turned into a wolf and it was thought all hope was lost.
Jacob rubbed at his forehead and his arm flopped back to his lap. “You know your mom and Charlie were going to get married, right? Well, they did. Charlie treats Seth’s kids like they were his own grandchildren. Everybody is excited about the next one.”
Leah’s sharp intake of breath cut off his words. Apparently, he hadn’t mentioned Wanda was expecting again. “Uh, she’s pregnant again. Though I guess she’s had the baby by now. It was going to be another girl.” Jacob refused to look at Leah. He didn’t think he could bear the pain he’d see in her eyes. She loved her brother and wanted him to be happy, but …
Jacob dropped his chin to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut. “Leah, I thought you’d want to know. I’m sure the baby is healthy. The others have been great. And they’re so strong and cute and—”
“What about your imprint, Alpha Black? Any wolf-vamp babies in your life?”
Hearing Leah speak, Jacob practically jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t even heard her phase or jump down from the boulder.
Warily, he turned his head toward her too-close voice. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but Leah was just as stunning as she’d always been. Her thick, dark hair was past her shoulders again, and she hadn’t aged a day. With such long hair, he briefly wondered why her wolf fur wasn’t shaggy.
The T-shirt he’d brought only had a few holes in it from his teeth, and it almost reached her knees.
She looked pretty damn good in it.
Out of the blue, he heard one of Quil’s stupid old pick-up lines slither through his head: do you realize that under these clothes, I am completely naked?
He was suddenly extremely aware of the fact of Leah’s nudity under the stolen shirt and forced his mind away from that dangerous territory
The corner of her lip curled up in a smirk and she propped her hand on her hip. “Didn’t you hear me? What about your imprint? To find me, you must have been looking a long time. How can you stand to be away from her?”
Scratching absently at his arm, he sighed as their gazes met. “The imprint … broke.”
Leah’s mouth fell open and she gaped at him.
Jacob shrugged. “I’m not sure what happened, but it just went away.”
Frowning, Leah crossed her arms over her chest. “Is that why you came after me? You’re all broken hearted so you thought we’d start our own lonely hearts club in the wilderness?”
“No. I missed you, Leah.” He peered up at her. “I don’t know what happened. And I’m not broken hearted. It didn’t even hurt. I barely noticed it. It just … ended.”
Leah rolled her eyes in an exaggerated movement. “I’ll bet his royal highness, Prince Edward, was ecstatic about that.” She stomped over toward Jacob, and his eyes were fixated on her hands as she smoothed the shirt down over the rounded curve of her butt, and dropped to the ground next to him. She leaned against the tree he was using as a back rest. “What happened?”
Maybe he’d been in the woods alone too long, but she sounded a little sympathetic. “Wellll,” he drew the word out, unsure how to start. “Uh, you know how you told me your monthly stopped after you phased?”
“You can call it a ‘period,’ Jake. We’re grown-ups now, but, yeah. What does that have to do with anything?” Her shoulder pushed his.
“When Nessie was about five, she had her first period. According to Bella, it all seemed normal—like a human girl—except she was only five years old.” Jacob shook his head. “I had thought that maybe things would … change between us when she became …”
“Are you blushing? I think you’re blushing!” Leah had twisted around to look directly in his face and started giggling. “So, Nessie all grown up and…?”
“And nothing.” There was a low growl to Jacob’s voice.
Leah sat back against the tree again with a huff. “She was maturing like a human? Growing taller, getting boobs and what? You didn’t notice? I thought the whole point behind imprinting was making more puppies. Or, in your case, vuppies,” she ended with a grumble. “At least that’s what Sam had said. Evidently, Seth and Wanda are fulfilling the destiny ordained by the gods.”
“There may be something to that,” Jacob admitted. “I noticed Ness growing and … developing … but it made no difference to me. I mean, it didn’t mean anything. I didn’t want—dammit!” He scrambled to his feet and gripped his short hair with both hands. “This just isn’t coming out right.”
Leah looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Just spit it out, Jake. Whatever it is, you can tell me. It’s not like you could disturb my delicate sensibilities.” Oddly, her tone, and the hard look in her cinnamon eyes, had softened. “You didn’t what?”
“I was relieved when I continued to see her as just a young girl—Bella’s daughter—not a potential, uh, mate.” He reached down and snatched up a broken limb and slung it into the trees, standing with his back to Leah. “And I don’t know why I feel so uncomfortable about it. Maybe that’s not the right word.” He propped his hands on his hips and his head dropped back on his shoulders. “When she started to mature, I thought maybe one day she’d see me as something more than a favorite uncle or whatever, and that made me really uncomfortable. I didn’t want to see her like that—like a lover or a wife. I was still consumed with taking care of her and keeping her safe. We were like best buds. I knew she was a girl, and a really beautiful one, but I never saw her as a girl, ya know?”
“Yeah, I do. Like me and Seth. I know he’s a good looking guy. He’s ripped, he’s tall … he’s a total babe, but he’s my brother, and I still think of him as that jerky snot-nosed kid who got on my nerves. I mean, I used to help change his diapers! It’s hard to believe he’s got babies of his own.” Leah had jumped to her feet and her arms were spread wide. “So I don’t get the thing with Quil and Claire. I never did.” She shook her head as she walked toward Jacob and settled a hand on his arm. “You see Nessie as a relative? Like a sister? Maybe you imprinted on her to be her protector?” She rubbed his arm. “But you said the imprint broke.”
“Yeah, and it was weird. Edward kept watching me like a hawk—like he thought I’d jump her bones any damn minute, and that was the furthest thing from my mind! And he knew it.”
“Edward was always a stuck up asshole as far as I was concerned.”
“That hasn’t changed.” Jacob coughed out a harsh laugh. “Anyway, Nessie was having monthly periods, just like a human. She’d get cranky sometimes, other times she’d be kind of whiny. It happens, right?” He looked down when he felt Leah’s hand wrap around his. He kind of liked it. Maybe she had missed him, too. It had been a long time since either of them had even touched another person. Especially Leah.
He started walking and pulled her along with him. “You can bet Carlisle was taking detailed notes. Nessie was six years and nine months old when her periods apparently stopped. She grew a little taller and then that stopped. She was seven years and two months old when the imprint just … went.” Jacob fluttered his fingers in the air. “I felt it, but it didn’t hurt. It was like it just drained away. It didn’t even seem to bother Nessie either. We were still friends, but didn’t feel that compulsion to be together. I was going to see Seth and the kids, and Nessie wanted to stay home and read her book, and neither one of us thought anything of it. Bella was the one who brought it up. She asked Ness why she didn’t want to go to the Rez with me. We both sort of looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and told Bella the imprint was gone. I think she was more upset about it than anyone else.”
Leah let out a disdainful breath. “You know Bella never wanted to let you go. She wanted her cake and to eat it, too. As long as you were imprinted on Nessie, Bella got to have her dreamy husband and her bestest buddy.” She growled and kicked at a stick, sending it into the low brush. “You didn’t go back to being stuck on her did you?”
“No!” Jacob shoved her with his elbow. “She’s a full vamp and she stinks. Besides, she’s shoved so far up Edward’s ass—”
“Praise the Lord and hallelujah, the boy has finally seen the light!” Leah cheered. She squawked and leapt away from him when he went to swat at her. She kept a tree between them as she taunted at him. “Jacob Black! You know you were a complete idiot around that girl. I’m glad you finally realized it!”
When he lunged to grab her, she darted away. “You also know you can’t catch me, so give up now before you embarrass yourself.”
When Jacob threw his hands up in defeat and abruptly sat down, Leah smirked at him. “That’s what I thought.” Going no closer, she leaned against the tree she had used as a shield and crossed her arms. “What else is there? You said Carlisle had been taking notes. What did Doctor Fang have to say about it?”
“Well, it’s kind of … gross. Edward wasn’t happy, but he’s the original Prudey McPruderson.” Jacob leaned back against another tree and began tossing a pine cone up into the air and catching it. “Carlisle’s theory was that as long as Nessie was actively growing, she might be able to become pregnant and carry a baby to full term—whatever that might be for a human-vamp hybrid. He thinks she became more vampire-like when she stopped growing. Physically frozen like they are. Remember Nahuel?”
Leah got a faraway look in her eyes as she thought back eight years to when the male hybrid had come to the showdown between the Volturi and the Cullens. “Yeah. He had sisters, right?”
“Yes. Three. Apparently, none of them have ever had kids and Nahuel never wanted to give his so-called father any more victims to experiment on.” Jacob chucked the pine cone away. “Anyhow—”
“Wait a minute.” Leah stared at him, eyes wide. “What you’re saying is if Nessie, or any female hybrid, wanted to have kids, they’d have to do it before they were finished growing?” Leah had taken a few steps toward him. “That … that kind of makes sense. Once they stop growing, how would their bodies expand for a baby? Human girls can get pregnant before they’re actually finished growing. On the other hand,” Leah’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “That means she’d have to get pregnant when she was like five or six years old and—”
“And that just isn’t right. I don’t care if they grow so much faster and have super-fast brains like a vampire.” Jacob slammed his hand down on the ground.
“Just from a biological point of view, cats and dogs go into heat when they’re six to nine months old. They can have a litter when they aren’t full grown yet. I mean, humans are just animals with big brains. Mammals. Do you think vampires would be considered mammals or reptiles? What would the hybrids be? Half mammal, half reptile?” Once again, Leah went and sat next to Jacob, using the tree as a backrest. “That’s a really narrow window of fertility. Doesn’t seem fair. That Nahuel guy can probably knock up hybrids and human women his whole allegedly eternal life. Who’d have thought a male vampire could get human women pregnant, anyway?”
Jacob just blinked at her. He’d never thought about it that way before. “There were the legends about incubus … incubi … whatever … doing just that. But never mind about that.” Jacob folded his arms over his chest and stared up into the forest canopy.
Leah brushed her hair out of her face. “Seems weird that male and female vampires are venomous and can make new vampires, but only the male vampires can father children. Only male hybrids have venom. Makes you think they could make vampires, too. Would they be full vampires?” Leah tapped at her chin. “Female hybrids have periods, but only for a couple years, if Nessie is typical. None of the ones we know about have had vamplets.” She turned her puzzled frown on him. “So what else did the un-learned doctor have to say?”
Jacob had twisted around while she was, essentially, thinking out loud, and just stared at her, a baffled expression on his face. Where else would her strange mind go? “Maybe the imprint is for breeding purposes. Carlisle said he thought the imprint broke because Nessie was past her fertile years.”
“And you didn’t have any vuppies. You and Ness missed your chance. If the imprint was going to break, what was the point of it to begin with?” Leah’s voice sounded sad.
Jacob could only guess she was thinking about Sam again. All that heartache, and for what? Would the imprint break when Emily went through menopause or did Jacob’s break because Nessie wasn’t a full human? Maybe Leah thought he missed his chance to have kids of his own. He didn’t see it that way.
He felt like he had to say something, but he wasn’t sure what. “That’s not what it implies in the legends. ‘Til death do them part and all, but maybe when Nessie turned more vamp … It sure beats the hell out of me.” He raised one hand in a what are you gonna do gesture. “It gives me a chance to find my own woman—not have one chosen for me. Never heard of anyone imprinting twice.” He turned to Leah and gave her arm a gentle shove. “Hey, here’s a woman right here.” For the first time, he grinned at her. “What do you say we go home, woman? Your vacation has lasted long enough.”
She pushed his hand away and scowled at him. “Yeah, you found me, but I’m not your woman. I could possibly imprint on somebody. And besides, I can’t have kids—no period, no eggs, no babies, remember?”
Exasperated, Jacob let out a little growl. “Leah! You’ve been alone in the wilderness too long. You’re the one talking about repti-mammal vampires and other weird crap. Did it ever occur to you other things are … What I’m saying here is things are not what we thought they were or were led to believe.” He blew out a breath. “While we’re on the subject of uncomfortable topics—not that it’s any of my business—have you even had sex since you phased into a wolf?”
“You’re right. It’s none of your damn business!” She dropped her face into her hands. “No,” she whispered, sounding defeated. “I haven’t.”
“Arrrgh!” Jacob threw his hands up and glared at her bowed head. “Then how do you know you can’t have kids? Other stuff is different, maybe that works different, too!” Without even seeing her face through her curtain of hair, he knew he had her. “Never thought of that during your sabbatical did ya?”
“Maybe I’m out here because I don’t want to go home.”
“You are so damn hard-headed! Ironically, it’s actually one of the things I like about you.” Jacob let out a long, breathy sigh, even though he felt victory within his grasp. “You gotta admit you miss it—the festivals, the bonfires … the rain. I’ll bet you’re dying to see all of Seth’s kids. Some others have had kids, too.”
“Let me guess—Sam and Emily?”
Was that a spark of hope he spied when she rolled her eyes?
“Yeah, they had a couple—a girl and a boy. Emily said two’s enough for her. Jared and Kim have a girl. Paul and Rachel had a boy. Everyone expected her to have twins, but she fooled ‘em.” A little smile played around the corners of Jacob’s mouth. “We missed the Welcoming the Whales ceremony, but if we get started—”
“Maybe we’ll make it in time for the rummage sale?” She finally lifted her head and her light brown eyes held a mischievous twinkle. “Biggest rummage sale in the state needs to be held on the longest day of the year!” she said, deepening her voice to mock the elders who organized the event. She failed miserably at holding in her merriment.
Relieved, Jacob tried to join in with the game. “I’m not real sure what day it is, but today has sure felt like the longest one of the year. Maybe we’ll make it in time for the Canoe Journey in July. We should sign up—be a team.”
She dipped her head and looked up at him from the corner of her eye, a clear challenge shining there. “I don’t know, Jake.” She jumped up and brushed bits of leaves and pine needles off her make-shift dress. “Your dad was captain of his own fishing boat, but you always sucked at paddling.”
“Hey!” He complained as he stood next to her, arms spread wide. “I can do better … with a little coaching.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Shall we give it shot?” He offered his arm and, surprisingly, she took it.
“Eh, we could try.” She jerked up a shoulder noncommittally, patted his arm, and began walking nonchalantly into the forest. She looked at him over her shoulder. “As long as I’m captain. If you don’t follow orders, you walk the plank, and I get a new first mate.”
“Uh, sure,” he answered without thinking, a little dazed at her sudden change of mood.
“That’s aye, aye, captain.”
“Wait. What? Canoes don’t have a plank. And who said you were captain?”
“Okay, then. First one to La Push wins,” she said breaking into a sprint and phasing on the fly, ragged bits of fabric exploding in every direction, gleeful wolfy rumbling fading in her wake.
“That’s not fair, you’re faster than …” Jacob stammered, watching the silvery fur rapidly disappear in the dense greenery. He shook his head in amusement. “For somebody who was dead set against it, she sure seems eager to get back.” He took off, phased, and chased after her in the direction of home.