I dreaded this far more than I'd ever thought possible. After spending so much time away from the Pride, I'd grown accustomed to my human life. My normal life. Eyes hidden by large sunglasses, I ignored the heavy truck traffic on Highway 138 and focused on my surroundings instead. Antelope Valley had been my home for years, ever since my parents had been killed in a freak hiking accident when I was only a teenager. The Pride had adopted me. No, Sara had adopted me.
I blinked back tears. I couldn't believe I hadn't been there when she'd passed away. I was too late in coming home, having purposefully delayed my return as I racked up excuse after mumbled excuse. But now, I was too freaking late, and the worst thing was they needed me even more. I'd run away to college and my first job, these five years spent away from them all for nothing. I was the only female of age, and too bad if I wasn't a lioness. They wouldn't care. They never had.
I gulped and slowed down, the exit appearing in the rapidly approaching distance. The scenery was eerily familiar as I drove toward my former home. At one point, I'd hoped never to come back here, never to see them again. Them... My mates, as they'd wanted me to call them. I took a deep breath and let it out, forcing my fingers to unclench from the steering wheel. Nothing could force the memories away, however.
I'd run away in my eighteenth year. I might have been young in spirit, but I hadn't been stupid. They'd waited because Sara had told them I needed to grow up and become an adult before they fell on me, but I'd felt their gazes, those sharp intelligent gazes assessing me wherever I went, whatever I did. It probably hadn't helped that my teenage hormones had been all over the place, wanting them one minute and hating them the next. And so, I'd stolen Samuel's car keys and crept away in the middle of the afternoon, when the lions were resting.
I'd never been proud of what I'd done, but now that I would face them in mere minutes, I was slowly starting to panic. What if they were still angry? How were they going to react to my return? Would they really expect me to fall back into the Pride life as if I'd never left? Could I?
I took a sharp turn right, gravel spitting on the rusted sides of my car. I didn't even wince at the metallic sounds, too shocked by the image that had appeared in front of me. Men were lined up at the end of the path, forming a half-circle and effectively cutting off my entrance into their domain. Five tall and muscled men, all sporting the same grim expression, all staring straight ahead as if to show they were waiting for me only under duress.
What the hell is going on? I pressed on the pedal and ground the car to a halt. They never moved a muscle.
"Shit," I muttered through clenched teeth as I unsnapped my seat belt.
They still hadn't moved by the time my sandal-clad foot slapped the disturbed earth. I drew myself up and thanked the stars I wore dark glasses. They couldn't see my eyes as I made my way slowly, very slowly, toward them, my gaze assessing each and every one. They hadn't changed much, the passing years only tanning their bodies a little bit more. Brian's hair was blonder--I remembered it as more strawberry red before, with the emphasis on red. His eyes glittered as he stared at me, and I found myself squaring my shoulders when I didn't spot the usual gentleness in them. He'd always been the jokester, the one you could rely on to relieve the sometimes heavy atmosphere that hung over the Pride.
My gaze followed the line down to the triplets. Trent, Samuel and Logan stood as one, their arms crossed over their chests as they stared me down. I refused to look intimidated as I walked the last few steps, my head held up high, my gait smooth. I might not be a lioness, but I'd grown up with them. I knew that if I showed just the tiniest hint of weakness, they'd jump on me.
That's why when I finally slowed to a stop only inches from them, I drew my glasses up so they rested on top of my head and met Leo's gaze straight on.
Leo the lion. On anyone else, it'd have been silly, a gimmick and nothing more. But not him. Never him. He stood tall and proud, his black hair and green eyes so unexpected amidst a Pride chock full of blue-eyed blondes, it made him seem dangerous. But then, only one look at that face and its bold angles would make you realize your first instinct had been right. The man was dangerous. He was their uncontested leader, the male heading their now female-less Pride.
It was unheard of. Usually, adult males were nomads and only gravitated to the females when it was time to copulate. But the Antelope Valley Pride had lost its last female, Sara, and now, there was only me left...
"Leo," I finally said when I realized he wouldn't speak up first.
"Jade," he replied, his voice harsh.
Ah damn, I thought, he was still mad. Licking lips that were suddenly dry, I forced the uneasiness creeping inside me back to where it came from and asked, "What's up with the welcoming committee?"
"We need to talk."
"And we couldn't do it at home?" Anger met my words. I could feel them bristle, all five of them, even Brian. "What? What did I say?"
"You dare calling it your home after you ran away, leaving us all without even thinking of the consequences!" Trent's words came out as more of a growl than anything else.
My heartbeat picked up speed when I noticed their eyes had darkened, taking that amber hue that announced the emergence of their lions. "I had to leave. You know that."
"We don't know that," Logan replied through gritted teeth.
"You had a life here. You had family and people who loved you, but you didn't care enough about us to stay."
"Oh no, Samuel. You know that's not true."
"Isn't it?" Brian said, the tone of his voice unlike anything I'd ever heard from him before.
"I couldn't stay here. I had to go live a...a normal life. I had to!"
"Why, Jade?" Leo's gaze caught mine. "Because you feared us that much?"
"No." I shook my head. My thoughts were unraveling. I'd known they would interrogate me, but I hadn't expected it to start so soon. I'd been looking forward to stepping into my old home, the one I'd shared with Sara and was now mine. It held happy memories, bad ones too, sure, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't had some good times.
"Then, why?" Leo's question ended up on a roar.
Our surroundings grew so quiet I could suddenly hear their ragged breathing. No birds calling, no insects muttering, or whatever the hell they did. Not a single sound but them...and me. I exhaled slowly, knowing I owed them the truth after all those years. "I needed to see whether I could live out there like a normal woman. I'd grown up with you, and I knew you were expecting me to become your Mate, but I wasn't ready. I wanted to know if dating other men would...change the way I felt about you."
Gazes still locked, I stared into Leo's eyes and sighed. "No. No, it didn't."
Two seconds later, hands were on me.