Excerpt for Soulmate by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2018 Erin M. Leaf



ISBN: 978-1-77339-641-5


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Karyn White



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.




DEDICATION


For my readers—because everyone deserves a happy-ever-after ending.



SOULMATE


Soulmates, 1


Erin M. Leaf


Copyright © 2018


Chapter One


“It’s been three years since Mom died, Dad,” Guy Keaton’s son said. His voice sounded smaller over the phone than in real life, but his exasperation came through loud and clear. “You need to get out there again. Maybe go on a date or two. You know people like us live longer than ordinary humans. You may be forty-five, but for a WoodCrafter, you’re still young. I’m a Healer, and I can tell that you’re as healthy as a horse.”

Guy frowned, feeling the beginning of a headache creep up from his spine as he paced his shop. The afternoon sunlight lit the bench where he’d just placed his latest creation: an acoustic guitar. It still needed a lot of work. He stared at it while he tried to figure out what to say to his son. The swirls of the flame maple front picked up the light quite nicely, and he sighed, wishing he wasn’t having this conversation again. “Jonathan, I’m fine just the way things are. Seriously. I don’t know why you keep nagging me about dating. I’m good with my woodworking and hanging out with you once a week or so. I don’t need to start dating. I loved your mother, and I have no intention of replacing her with anyone.”

“Mom made me promise I wouldn’t let you hibernate alone forever,” Jonathan said impatiently. “She also told me you’d be impossible over this, and she was right.” He let out a gusty sigh, then continued. “I know it sucked, the cancer. Her dying so young. Believe me, I get it. She was my mom, and I couldn’t save her. I miss her, too, but, Dad, you hardly leave the house. It’s not healthy. I’m not sure having your woodshop attached to where you live is a good thing.” He paused a moment, then continued. “And who knows? Maybe you’ll find a soulmate out there.”

I don’t want a soulmate, I want my wife back, Guy thought as a familiar surge of grief welled up and lodged in his esophagus, nearly choking him. For a moment he couldn’t talk. He remembered Pamela’s dark red hair. Her startling blue eyes. He’d loved teasing her about how much time she spent fooling with her makeup when the truth was, she didn’t need any at all. She was beautiful to him even after the cancer had robbed her of everything: her hair, her sparkle. Even her skin lost its glow, but she was still his wife. His high school sweetheart. He’d loved her for her kindness and her intelligence, not because of how she’d looked. She wasn’t his fated soulmate, and she didn’t have any Craft power, but it didn’t matter. How many people found their perfect match, anyway? It happened so rarely it was almost mythical. He’d fallen for Pamela in middle school, and had never bothered wishing after some impossible soulmate that only one percent of the already rare Crafted population ever found. He loved Pamela. They were supposed to live happily ever after together, not happily for half of a life.

“Dad? You there?”

Guy cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m here.” He heard the hoarseness in his voice and knew he had to do better. “Look, I’m about to head out. Are we still getting together for pizza on Friday night?”

“You’re trying to get out of this conversation,” his son said.

Guilty as charged, Guy thought, but he couldn’t let his son think that he didn’t want to talk to him. “No, really. I’m going—” He thought frantically for a split second, trying to figure out what he could tell his son that wouldn’t be a lie. His gaze landed on his shop’s bulletin board where he let customers and friends post advertisements and business cards. A flyer for a local outdoor trail caught his eye. “—hiking,” he said, seizing on the idea. He could use a break from his latest project. The surface of the guitar’s neck had cracked when he’d tried to screw in the pegs, and now he had to take it apart and re-varnish the entire piece. He could use a bit of cardio to work off his frustration. “I was about to head out to the Blue Mountain trails when you called.”

“Hiking? Hmm.” His son sounded suspicious.

“I used to go hiking all the time,” Guy pointed out, praying his son would buy the excuse.

“You haven’t gone since…” Jonathan trailed off.

Guy smiled grimly. He hadn’t gone since Jonathan’s mother had died, true. She hadn’t liked hiking, so it had been one of the few things they didn’t do together, but he’d been going out to the woods since he was a teenager. Glancing at the flyer again, he realized he missed being in the forest. It made sense. As one of the few people born with a Craft talent, he’d been blessed with an affinity to wood. He was a WoodCrafter. He probably shouldn’t have cut himself off from living trees for so long. “It’s just a quick hike. I miss going out into nature. And I need to work off some energy today because I messed up the varnish on my latest guitar.”

“Well. That’s good, I guess,” Jonathan said slowly, obviously working through what Guy had told him. “You shouldn’t be obsessing over cracked varnish, anyway. You’re a WoodCrafter. You could just smooth over the problem spot with a little bit of energy.” His son sounded cheerier. “You have more than enough Crafting skill to fix something like that, and you should keep in practice, anyway. Not many of us have the ability to actually use what we’re born with, you know.”

“And you know I don’t like to do that. Feels like cheating,” Guy replied, bemused. His son was repeating his own lessons back at him. He shook his head. He didn’t know why he’d been born with the ability to handle woods, but it wasn’t something he’d chosen. No one did. Not everyone was born with the capability to manipulate natural materials, and of those who were, only some had enough power to actually use the ability. Most people with Craft could sense the energy, but didn’t have the capacity to do anything with it, and no one knew why.

“Look, it’s not like this talent is particularly useful in the modern world. There isn’t that much of a demand for Crafted wooden objects,” Guy told his son.

“Are you kidding?” Jonathan asked incredulously. “You could be creating soulmate rings and pulling in money hand over fist. I’m not sure anyone is making them anymore.”

“Only bonded WoodCrafters can make those rings, and I don’t have a soulmate. I know I’ve explained that to you that before.” Guy scowled. “So, no. I can’t. And it’s not like there are a lot of soulmated pairs to sell them to, anyway.” The thought of making soulmate rings when his own wife had died… Ugh. Not now, and probably not ever, he thought, recoiling from the very idea of it. He’d never be able to handle the pain of meeting and dealing with soulmate couples. He didn’t care if there was a shortage of the rings. He deserved to live out the rest of his life in peace, if not happily, and he had no desire to date or meet his so-called perfect match. The love of his life was gone, and she was never coming back.

“What good is having power if you don’t use it?” his son asked, clearly sensing his father’s disquiet. “Your Craft power is cool. Sometimes I wish I’d inherited your abilities.”

Guy exhaled slowly. They’d been over this before. “I like to work with wood the old-fashioned way. I know I have both an affinity and the power for WoodCraft, but I like working with my hands. And you have your own power, Jonathan. Not everyone can sense illness the way you do. You’re a fantastic veterinarian. A Healer. That’s rare, too.”

His son made an unintelligible sound. “Fine, fine. I can tell you don’t want to talk about it anymore. So, about hiking. Maybe we could go together sometime. Next weekend?”

Guy nodded, happy to get off the topic of soulmates and power and most especially dating. “Yes, that would be great.” He and his son used to go hiking all the time. When had they stopped? He thought a moment. When Pamela first got sick. Has it really been five years since we’ve been out in the woods together? Wow, he thought, dismayed. His son deserved more of his time. Jonathan was the only family he had left.

“I can do next Sunday afternoon, maybe around four,” Jonathan said, sounding distracted. “Hang on, let me put it on my calendar.”

“That would be nice. I’d really love to get out with you. I miss it,” Guy said. There, that wasn’t a lie at all. He smiled to himself. Maybe Jonathan was right. He did need to get out, but he certainly didn’t need to try dating. Doing some hiking with his son and getting in a little extra exercise wouldn’t hurt. He was in great shape thanks to his woodworking. The bigger pieces he put together, like tables and cabinets, often needed a lot of muscle, but more active pursuits wouldn’t be bad for him. Might help me be more creative, too. Exercise is good for the mind and the body, everyone says, he mused.

“Hey, Dad, I have to go. They’re bringing in an injured dog, and they need my Craft. I’ll see you Friday, okay?”

Guy nodded, even though he knew his son couldn’t see him. “Yeah, Friday for pizza, and then next Sunday. Four o’clock.”

“Yup, great. Bye, Dad. Love you.”

“Love you, too,” Guy replied, but then he realized the connection was already dead. He smiled wryly. His son was a busy man. Most of the people born as Healers were human doctors, so a veterinarian with that particular power was in high demand. People loved their pets. He rolled his shoulders, wincing as his spine cracked. He wasn’t getting any younger. People with Craft lived a little longer than regular humans, and people who found their soulmates lived even longer than that, but he was no longer sure an extended lifespan was all it was cracked up to be. He’d much rather have Pamela back than go on through the next sixty or so years alone.

“Stop it,” he said aloud, standing up and stretching. “You’re only forty-five, and you have a son, and a successful business.” He hated self-pity, and he’d been falling into the habit too often in the past few years. He grimaced as he racked his tools and set the guitar aside, out of the sunlight. Maybe he’d trail run instead of hike. If nothing else, working his body to exhaustion would help him sleep tonight.

****

“Stupid,” Guy muttered, wiping the sweat off his face. He’d run two miles, and then pooped out. “I am an idiot.” The sun glittered down through the trees and the birds were singing, but to him, the sounds of the late spring day felt like taunts. He’d let himself get way too out of shape for running, but now he was in the middle of the trail loop and there was no way out but forward. “One step at a time,” he said, snorting. He’d at least managed not to get a blister, but it had been a close thing. He’d already taken his trail runners off twice to cool a hot spot on his heel. He kept walking, watching for roots and rocks as his overheated body cooled. At the back of his mind, he sensed the trees murmuring to each other with his Craft, and he had to smile. He’d missed this. Working with wood helped, but living, breathing trees had a language all their own. Why had he stayed away from the woods for so long?

“Sir, please wait a moment,” a man said, startling him as he headed around a sharp curve.

Guy looked up just before he walked into a black-clad man standing in the middle of the trail. “What?”

“Delegate Fraser is almost done filming,” the man replied, blocking his way. “You can pass in a moment.”

Delegate? What is a Craft Councilmember doing out in the woods? Guy frowned, looking past the black-clad man. Just beyond them stood a younger man talking to a camera. A woman held a microphone boom next to the cameraman, and another woman stood to the side. She watched, occasionally tapping at her tablet computer. Two more black-clad men stood on the other side of the trail, blocking access from that direction. “What’s going on?” Guy asked, confused. Sure, this was a popular public trail, but it wasn’t like there were so many Council Delegates that it was easy to stumble over one in the middle of the woods. The Council mostly mediated disputes between Crafters and handled public relations with the larger non-gifted population.

“Sir, please stand back,” the man said, not answering Guy’s question.

The woman with the tablet looked over, then made her way around the camera. “Delegate Fraser is recording a public service announcement promoting outdoor activity,” she said, smiling. She nodded to the man in black, and he backed up a bit, turning to watch the trail. She held out her hand. “Hello, I’m Rose Tremaine, Delegate Fraser’s assistant. Do you come here often?”

That guy looks like a bodyguard. Strange. I’ve never heard of a Council Delegate needing protection, except maybe the Council Head. Guy absently shook the woman’s hand, noting her short dark hair and brown eyes. Her light brown skin looked smooth as butter, and he wondered what was wrong with him that he felt not even the slightest bit of attraction to her. Even when he’d been married he’d noticed beautiful women, but lately he hadn’t felt anything. “Guy Keaton. And no, I don’t come here often anymore, but I used to. It’s been a few years.” He looked past her. Something about the Delegate still talking to the camera intrigued him. “He’s a bit young for a Delegate, isn’t he?”

Rose smiled. “He’s thirty, so, yeah. He’s young, but not that young.” She glanced over her shoulder at the Delegate. “And he’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met.”

Guy raised an eyebrow, sensing that she meant more than she was saying out loud. “Is he gifted, then?” He felt himself flush. Of course the man had Craft power. He couldn’t serve on the Council if he didn’t. “I meant, does he have a Craft specialty?” Only the strongest of them specialized in something. His WoodCrafting and his son’s Healing abilities were unusually strong, but then, the power did tend to run in families.

Her mouth twisted slightly, and Guy knew she was amused by his stumbling. “He’s an Empath, and he has a lot of Craft power, yes, if that’s what you mean.” She lifted a shoulder. “But he’s gifted in other ways, too. He truly believes in serving his constituents. You know how rare that is.”

Guy nodded. Historically, people who were born with empathy as their Craft sometimes went into politics, but not many could handle the burden of being around people all the time. The Empaths who’d served on the Council in the past were always bonded with a soulmate, and their partner helped them handle the pressure of their situation. Empathy was both a gift and a curse, so much so that he hadn’t heard of anyone with that particular gift becoming a Delegate for at least fifty years. He didn’t envy the guy.

“Theo’s a good guy,” Rose said, turning back to look at her boss.

“Interesting,” Guy murmured, feeling the trees around him hush as the man spoke. Guy’s Craft power tingled, sending surges of energy down his spine. He inhaled, then let out his breath slowly. He hadn’t had to wrestle with his power in ages. Down, boy, he told himself, amused when his cock twitched. Something about the Delegate and being in the woods was getting his energy all riled up.

“Are you gifted?” Rose asked him, tilting her head.

He nodded. “Wood.” He gestured to the trees. He could tell she didn’t have even a spark of Craft, but she seemed naturally intuitive.

She smiled. “Interesting, Mr. Taciturn.”

He laughed, enjoying her poke at his cryptic statement. “Not that interesting,” he said wryly.

“There aren’t a lot of WoodCrafters,” she said, dark eyes speculating. “Do you create soulmate rings?”

Guy went still. “No. I’m not bonded,” he said, suddenly angry. Everyone knew only a soulmated Crafter could make the rings. And why did so many people assume he wanted a soulmate? He’d had a wife, and he’d loved her deeply even though she wasn’t his soulmate, and then he’d lost her, and now his life was shit.

“I’m sorry,” she said, stepping back. “Crafting with wood is so rare, and there’s the shortage of rings…” She trailed off apologetically.

Guy shook his head, then scrubbed at his face. “No, no. You did nothing wrong. I’m just—” He cut himself off before he said anything more.

“What’s wrong? Rose?”

Guy looked up, then froze. The Delegate had come over while he was having his little internal freak out. He stared at the man as everything went strangely silent in the forest. He felt as if the ground had suddenly dropped out from under his feet. Theo Fraser was around the same height as Guy, and muscular, but he carried himself like a man used to delicate negotiations. Guy wanted to touch him to see if he was real, but somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that wasn’t proper. He needed to wait … for what? He shook his head against the vertigo and looked down at his trail runners for a moment, hoping the familiar sight would help settle the weirdness. He jammed his right foot against the root poking up through the dirt and let the wood’s quiet strength seep into him. What the fuck was wrong with him? With his power? When he looked up again, the Delegate stared at him, dark eyes unwavering.

“Theo? Theo, are you okay?” Rose was asking. She put a hand on the Delegate’s arm.

Theo blinked. “I’m fine, Rose.” He held out his hand to Guy. “Hello, I’m Theo Fraser.”

Guy couldn’t move. The man’s brown eyes seemed lit with some kind of knowledge Guy didn’t share. Slowly, as though he had to push through molasses, he raised his hand. Theo grasped it, and Guy sucked in a startled breath when static jumped over his skin. “That’s some power you have there,” he managed to say.

Theo let go, looking just as startled. “It’s not my power. It’s yours.” He flexed his fingers. “You zapped me.”

Guy frowned, not sure what to say. His Craft power wasn’t anything nearly so dramatic as that. Talent with wood was a quiet skill. No one would even know he had any abilities at all unless he told them. Rose’s intuition about his Crafting was an anomaly.

“Did you finish filming the segment?” Rose asked, interrupting Guy’s thoughts.

Theo turned to her, looking confused. “No. I felt something … odd. I thought you were upset. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Rose pursed her lips. “I’m fine.” She glanced at Guy. “Theo, this is Guy Keaton. He said he used to use these trails a lot.”

“Hello, Guy,” Theo said, and then he smiled.

Guy almost stepped back, because it felt like he’d been punched in the chest. He sucked in a breath as his gaze met Theo’s. He’d swear the Delegate was peering right into Guy’s soul. He forced himself to look away, but his attention didn’t wander far, and his gaze landed on Theo’s hair. It was long for a politician: it just brushed his shoulders in soft waves. I bet it feels as soft as it looks, Guy thought, strangely fascinated.

“So, you used to hike here often?” Theo asked. “Have you been going somewhere else lately?”

Guy wrenched his attention back to the Delegate’s words. “No.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, I used to hike and run here all the time, and then, well…” He trailed off again. He had no idea how to tell people his wife was dead. He’d never been able to figure out how to explain the dramatic disaster of his life, and how Pamela’s death had changed everything for him. He doubted he’d ever feel comfortable explaining.

Theo’s expression softened as if he knew exactly what was going on in Guy’s head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”

Is this what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an Empath? Guy drew in a deep breath and decided to just get it over with. “I used to come hiking here all the time before my wife passed away three years ago.” He shrugged. “Cancer.”

Theo nodded as if he’d already expected that explanation. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” He glanced back at the cameraman for a moment. “I need to finish up the segment we’re filming, but I’d like it if you stuck around. I want to hike the rest of the trail, and it’d be nice to have company.”

Guy saw Rose’s eyebrows lift, but her surprise barely registered. The thought of hiking with someone intrigued him. “Yeah, that would be cool,” he found himself saying before he could question his sudden desire to hang out with a complete stranger. He hadn’t really wanted to hang out with anyone in years.

What the hell is wrong with me? he thought, running a hand over the back of his neck. His skin prickled, as if static was still running just under the surface.

“Great. I’ll be done in a few minutes,” Theo said, and then he loped back towards the camera.

“I have no idea what just happened,” Guy murmured, mostly to himself.

Rose laughed. “You met Delegate Fraser. He has that kind of effect on some people.”

Guy made a face. “I’m not some people. I’m just a guy. I’m ordinary.”

Rose gave him a speculative look. “Hmm.”

“Hmm? What does that mean?” Guy shifted his weight. His cock hung heavy and half-hard against his thigh. He wasn’t used to it. He wasn’t used to feeling much of anything, lately, except grief.

Rose just shook her head. “Nothing. You’ll see.”

Guy stared past her. The Delegate gestured to the woman holding the microphone, and the cameraman grinned. Theo began talking, but this time, Guy could tell there was something more there. Some sort of energy the Delegate hadn’t had before.

“He’s a good guy,” Rose murmured, watching with a half-smile on her face. “You could do worse.”

Guy frowned at her. “What?”

She just shook her head. “You’ll see,” she repeated.

I’ll see what? Guy wondered, but then the cameraman unshouldered his equipment, and Theo turned back down the trail. His dark eyes gleamed, even in the bright afternoon light. Guy nearly took a step back when their gazes caught and held. There’s nothing to fear, he told himself, as Theo started walking toward him. He’s just a man. A good man. Somehow, repeating those words in his head didn’t make him feel any better.

Chapter Two


Theo clamped down on his empathy with an iron control. He didn’t want to. He wanted to let loose and yell out to everyone that he’d found his soulmate, but his gift told him several things that prevented him from letting loose: his soulmate had no idea he was fated to Theo, and more importantly, his soulmate had no idea he could be paired with a man. Mr. Guy Keaton thought he was straight, and that meant Theo had to proceed very, very carefully.

“Hey, you ready to hike?” he asked, giving Guy a friendly smile. He liked the man’s easy physicality. He also liked the touch of silver at Guy’s temples, and in his short beard. For a dude who looked like he was in his forties, he certainly was in fantastic shape. Theo let himself check out Guy’s muscles. The man had enough of them—muscles on top of muscles in his arms and chest. I know he has power, but I wonder what kind? Guy had to do something to make him so freaking strong. His empathy told him that Guy was a strong Crafter, and that just made him all the more intriguing.

“I’m ready if you are,” Guy replied, returning his smile with a friendly one of his own. His eyes, though… His eyes were shuttered.

Theo gave his assistant a “what did you do?” look. He knew she’d said something to Guy to make him wary.

Rose lifted her hands as if to deny what Theo knew he sensed as she stepped back. “Guy here is a WoodCrafter,” she said.

Huh. That explains why he’s built like a brick wall, Theo thought. And his wife dying explains the sadness I can feel in him. Theo’s talent allowed him to read people’s emotions, but most folks were messy, roiling bundles of conflicting priorities and wishes. Guy was simply sad. Theo hated that the man he was fated to bond with had to feel such pain, but then again, if his wife hadn’t died, Theo wouldn’t have had a chance with Guy. And he wanted that chance, more than anything. Theo wrestled with his eagerness to learn everything he could about Guy as fast as possible.

Take it slow. He agreed to go hiking with you. He’s not going anywhere, Theo told himself. He smiled. He liked that Guy was a WoodCrafter. They were the only ones capable of creating the soulmate rings gifted couples wore. The rings bonded to them and to each other, and helped focus their Craft. They were rare, and the people who could make them were even rarer, because only a mated WoodCrafter had the ability to forge wood into a living ring.

“Theo, we’re going to head back to the office,” Rose said, interrupting his internal monologue.

Theo nodded, once again grateful that his best friend had agreed to become his assistant. She knew him well enough to understand what was happening, and she was already smoothing things over to give him time with Guy. “Thanks, Rose. You’ll reschedule this afternoon’s appointment for me?” It wasn’t an important meeting, and he wasn’t about to lose touch with his fated soulmate before he could at least get Guy’s number. He thought uneasily of the ominous undercurrents he’d been sensing since he’d started his term as a Delegate, but then he dismissed his worries. The problems with the Council weren’t going anywhere, but Guy might well disappear if Theo didn’t make an effort right now to get to know him. He could spare a few hours.

“Of course,” Rose said, tapping her tablet. “I’ll see you later.” She glanced at Guy. “Or tomorrow.”

Theo ignored her smirk. “Excellent. Thanks, Rose.” He turned to the others. “Thanks for coming out,” he said to Arnold, the cameraman, and the man’s assistant tech, Sarah. He shook their hands, conscious of Guy watching him while he turned on the charm. He had to be good to people, because his job depended on it. Guy surely understood that, right? But some people believe all politicians are weasels, he thought, then immediately quashed the possibility that Guy would be one of them. He wanted Guy to be above such things.

Arnold nodded, adjusting his equipment backpack. “I’ll be in touch. Give me a week or so to get the rough cut back to your office.”

Theo nodded. “Sounds good.” He turned back to Guy as Arnold and Sarah headed toward the parking lot with Rose. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get away to just hike in the woods. I’m looking forward to having a few hours to relax,” Theo said, deciding not to start right off with questions. There’d be enough time for him to draw Guy out, and ask about his wife. He gave his three bodyguards a quick gesture, and they widened the distance between them. John and Nick went behind him, while Julio loped ahead, but not before giving him a wink. Theo rolled his eyes.

“Why do you have bodyguards? Most Delegates don’t.” Guy brushed his hands on the trees as he walked, almost as if he couldn’t help himself.

He probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, Theo thought. “I’m gay, and I’ve received some death threats,” he said aloud. What he didn’t say was how frustrating he found being trailed by bodyguards. He’d received some hate mail, but he hadn’t had any close encounters with anyone meaning him harm. Council Head Brechek insisted on the bodyguards anyway, overriding Theo’s objections. As an Empath, he’d be able to sense if someone meant him harm. Brechek knew this, so the bodyguards were part of some deeper political maneuvering, possibly something to do with the secretive reports that he knew Brechek was hiding from him. Something was going on, but he hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of it, yet. Theo suspected that the bodyguards were meant to keep him in line, rather than protect him, but he had no proof, and the Council Head was crafty enough to hide his emotions from Theo. His bodyguards Julio and Nick were good men, but the third one, John, worried him. He couldn’t read the guy with his empathy at all. He’d asked for John to be dropped from his detail, but Brechek had refused, and Theo hadn’t wanted to start a fight so soon after becoming a Delegate.

“Death threats? That’s terrible,” Guy said, shaking his head.

“It is what it is,” Theo said. They walked for a while, neither man saying anything. Theo let himself enjoy Guy’s company, pushing aside the looming issues he faced in the Council. He’d deal with them when he had to. Theo glanced at Guy. Even though his emotions were sad, the man had a restful demeanor. Guy knew who he was, and his purpose in the world. His sense of self soothed Theo in a way no one else ever had. Then again, he is my soulmate, Theo thought, pausing to eye the trail ahead. “Lot of rocks coming up.”

Guy grinned as he stretched out his arms. “Yeah. We might need to do some scrambling in this next section.”

Damn, he’s hot, Theo thought as he rolled his shoulders, grateful that he’d kept up his workout routine even after he’d been chosen as a Delegate. He wanted to be able to keep up with his soulmate, and Guy was freaking built. He subtly adjusted himself, not keen on the idea of chafing his half-hard erection while climbing rocks. “You sound happy about that.”

“I am,” Guy replied with a quick grin. “Climbing is good for the soul.”

Theo smiled as they walked forward to where Julio waited for them at the foot of the slope.

“Looks fine, but I’ll go up ahead anyway,” Julio said. Theo nodded his thanks.

“Do you really think you need bodyguards out here?” Guy asked.

Theo shrugged. “Protocol. I have no choice. They were assigned by the Council after I received threats at the office.”

Guy frowned.

“You get used to them,” Theo said, sensing Guy’s discomfort with the lack of privacy. He hoped Guy would be able to adjust to the idea, because Theo had no intention of giving up on his soulmate before he’d even tried to court him. Delegates didn’t have the luxury of a private life.

“I’m used to being alone,” Guy murmured, watching Julio head up the trail.

Theo pursed his lips, then decided he needed to know some more details about Guy, if only to avoid stumbling into something painful. “What do you do for a living? I assume something with wood.” He nodded to the small stick Guy had picked up somewhere. The man had been absently shaping it into a stylized rod as they walked. It looked like a decorative bookmark.

“Hmm?” Guy looked down, then froze. “Oh, shit.” He stared at the stick in his hands.

Theo smiled. “You had no idea you were doing that, did you?”

Guy grinned sheepishly. “No.” He frowned, turning the stick around in his hands. “My Craft has been flaring up for some reason. Just in the past hour or so, actually.”

Just since we met. Theo bit back the words he wanted to say. Guy really had no clue. Theo would think it was merely denial on the other man’s part, but he knew that only people with an empathic gift could really know for sure that they’d met their soulmate at first glance. He thought a lot of it had to do with natural selection: Empaths had a much lower survival rate unless they were mated. The stress of always feeling everyone else’s emotions took its toll on people with that particular Craft talent. He took a deep breath and reminded himself to move slowly. The last thing he wanted to do was scare Guy off. “Has it been a while since you’ve been in the forest?”

Guy nodded. “Yeah. That’s probably what’s going on.”

Theo snorted softly to himself as Guy slipped the stick into a pocket of his cargo pants. He was ready to lay hands on the man and declare himself, but Guy’s emotions told Theo that he wasn’t even close to ready. “My Craft is stronger, too,” Theo said, instead, laying the foundation for Guy to put the puzzle pieces together. “I’m glad we’re somewhere there aren’t a lot of people.”

“Your empathy is stronger?” Guy looked at him in surprise.

Theo nodded.

“Can you sense me right now?”

Theo hesitated. Guy’s emotions had swelled from sadness to arousal to calm and then back to arousal in the last few minutes.

Guy stared at him expectantly. Theo ran a hand over his hair. “Most people don’t like it when I tell them what they’re feeling,” he said instead of answering Guy directly. “Most Empaths learn to avoid doing that, so I’ve heard.” He smiled wryly. “It’s not like there are a lot of us out there.” In truth, Theo had never actually met another Empath.

Guy pursed his lips, and then began climbing the rocks. “I’m not most people.”

Theo followed him, enjoying the view of Guy’s backside and strong legs. “No, you’re certainly not,” he murmured, softly enough that Guy wouldn’t hear him.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t feel comfortable sharing. I’m the last person in the world who would push someone into using their Craft.” Guy scrambled up a jumble of boulders as tall as he was. “There’s a great view just up ahead, if I’m remembering it right,” Guy said, pushing through some low hanging branches at the top of the rocks. “Careful. The footing here is iffy.”

Theo had no trouble navigating the rocks, especially not when his soulmate waited at the top for him. “I’m right behind you.” When he cleared the trees, he whistled. The valley lay before them like something out of a postcard. Blue skies with puffy white clouds skidding across the horizon completed the scene. “Damn. That’s a hell of a view.” He carefully didn’t mention that he was mostly looking at Guy taking in the view, and not the view itself.


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