Rick has spent all his life under Alpha Erskine's thumb. He was forced to become part of the man's inner circle when his father died and to participate in things that still give him nightmares. He's used to being shunned, beaten, and derided for his stutter, and he doesn't think things really can change, not even with Kameron as their new alpha.
Cole is part of the council, but he's really a wandering soul. He hasn't stopped in one place in years, but meeting his mate while visiting the Gillham pack changes that. He knows Rick hasn't had an easy life, and he intends to make his mate happy, no matter what it takes.
Rick struggles with his stutter and his past but slowly starts healing from the years of abuse. Cole is an important part of that healing, but what will happen when someone tries to take him away? Will Rick be strong enough to protect his mate, or will he lose him to greed?
The kitchen door opened again and Rick wondered if Duncan had forgotten something. He hadn't put the ear buds back in his ears for fear he wouldn't hear it if someone came in like Duncan had done. He turned away from the banana cupcakes he was frosting only to stop when he realized it wasn't Duncan behind him.
Rick knew the big man standing by the door had to be a council member, but it didn't make him less scary. He was big, very big, and the various tattoos and piercings didn't help Rick feel safer.
He clamped his mouth shut and waited to see what would happen. Maybe he should step away from the cupcakes, just in case he fell on them when the man hit him. He didn't want to ruin the hard work he'd been doing for the alpha's little party. He hoped the man would be quick, because he needed to take the macaroons out of the oven in barely five minutes if he didn't want them to be ruined.
"You're Rick Cantrell?"
Rick nodded but didn't say anything, even if he knew it could anger the man.
It didn't seem to, though, because the man only extended his arm and offered Rick his hand. "I'm Cole Hunter. I'm the Ursine member of the council and I think you're my mate."
Rick gaped and shook his head. "N-n-no."
"Y-y-you can't be m-m-my mate."
Cole stepped forward and Rick went backward. He couldn't go far because he was already pressed against the counter, so he huddled his upper body as well as he could and waited for the punch.
"Hey, I'm not going to hurt you." Cole's voice was surprisingly gentle. "I just wanted you to smell me. That way you'll know I'm saying the truth."
Rick screwed his eyes shut and shook his head. "N-n-no."
"You don't want to smell me?" Rick shook his head. "Why not?"
"E-e-even if you are m-m-my mate, w-w-what does it change?"
"I'm not sure I understand your question."
Rick wished he could hide behind his hair like he always did, but he'd bound it to cook. He opened his eyes slowly, needing to know what Cole was doing, to make sure he didn't come too close. "Y-y-you can't w-w-want me."
"Why not? Because of the stutter?"
If only that was Rick's only problem. Not that he'd tell the man in front of him anyway, so he just nodded.
"I don't care about that, but I talked with Duncan and I know your life hasn't been easy. He didn't tell me much, but I'm not going to push for anything. I just want to be sure. Please."
It was the please—Rick didn't think anyone had ever asked him something with a please—and the slightly desperate expression on Cole's face that made him cave. He gave the man a curt nod and slowly straightened.
Cole took another step forward and Rick had to force himself to stay in place. Cole moved slowly and in a non-threatening way, but after years of abuse, Rick was wired to be afraid, especially when someone he didn't know came close.
He managed to stay upright, even though he was trembling by the time Cole was close enough for Rick to smell the strong woodsy scent that came from him. Rick's wolf whimpered in the back of his mind, but instead of hiding like he always did when they were in danger, he came forward. It was enough to tell Rick that Cole had said the truth—they were mates.
Cole inhaled deeply next to Rick's neck. He was too close for Rick to be anywhere near comfortable, but he stayed still until Cole moved away. The man didn't go far, but it was enough for Rick to feel a bit better.
"You know I was telling the truth."
"I'd like to get to know you better."
Rick shook his head.
Damn. This was a question Rick had to answer with words. A shake or nod wouldn't do. But he hated talking. "I-i-it's not only the s-s-stutter. I-I-I'm no good f-f-for a mate."
Cole leaned down until their eyes locked. "I'm not asking you to mate with me or even to only consider the idea. I just want to get to know you, no strings attached. We can talk, or you can stay silent and listen to me. I just want a chance. Please."
Rick already knew the soulful brown eyes and the solemn expression on Cole's face would be his downfall. He knew it, yet he couldn't do anything against it. So he nodded.
A smile bloomed on Cole's face. "Do you mind if I stay with you in the kitchen? I'll sit against the wall and stay out of your space."