His words haunted her. Mine. What did that even mean? On the surface, she knew what it meant, and they were enough to halt her plans of leaving Sheridan.
Did she hide behind her inability to shift, keeping everyone at bay to make sure they couldn’t hurt her? Before her eighteenth birthday, she’d been a normal teenage girl.
Giggling with her friends. Writing Jericho’s name with hearts all over her notebooks.
The first blow to her plans was when Branson had fallen. Then Jericho fled. What sealed the nail in the coffin, however, came with the diagnosis of recessive.
Now, try as she might, she couldn’t remember if it had been her friends or herself who had given up on their friendship. All she could remember was her parents sitting her down and explaining she was no longer good enough as a wolf to be a mate, so it was probably best that Jericho had left.
After he’d dropped her off at her place, Payton couldn’t find rest. She tossed and turned, thinking over his words. Deciding she had to see if he was right, she rose early, showered, and dressed. As she stepped outside, she noticed her father’s car was gone. Heading down the road, she walked with purpose to the diner. She had a lot to ask Esmeralda.
Usually on her walk into town, she’d keep her head down. This time, with Jericho’s words ringing in her head, she looked around and made eye contact with pedestrians on the street. To her surprise, every person either waved at her or gave a smile.
Was it possible Jericho had been correct? Had she been the one pushing everyone away? As she walked into the diner, she decided to sit at the counter and slid onto the stool that Jericho had sat on last night.
“Miss this place, eh?” Esmeralda said with smile. “You’ll be here tonight.”
“Here for coffee,” Payton replied. “And to think.”
Esmeralda sat a mug in front of her and filled it. “Uh oh, that sounds serious.”
Payton wrapped her hands around the cup, enjoying the heat. “I talked with Jericho last night. Did you know he and I…” She faltered, not sure how to ask the question.
“That?” Esmeralda prompted. “That … you and he and are mates?”
Payton’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“Honey, everyone knows. You can’t hide those pheromones! Whole d*mn town could smell it!”
“Oh, my God, I had no idea,” Payton muttered, embarrassed.
“That’s a good thing,” Esmeralda said with a wink. “Is that what’s got your panties in a twist?”
“Mostly. But I was wondering if you think I, well, do I push people away?”
“Hold on.” She walked away to cash out a few customers. When she returned, she gave a sigh. “I love you to death, Payton, but yes. You think you’re the only shifter who couldn’t shift?”
The thought slammed into Payton. “Uh … yes, actually. My parents—”
Esmeralda waved the words away. “Your parents did you wrong, girl. If the scientists and doctors know about that recessive gene you have, then obviously there’s been a few other wolves with it.”
“I’ve never thought about it like that,” Payton admitted.
Esmeralda patted her hand. “This town has always accepted you, Payton. Your mom and your dad made you think they didn’t. Now you tell me, who’s the real disappointment?”
The older woman walked away again to grab the hot plates that had just slid to the service window. Payton finished off her coffee and threw down a dollar. Her appetite had fled.
She wanted to see Jericho. Waving at her boss, she headed out then paused to figure out where he’d be. The only logical place would be his old home. Since she had no car to drive, she walked across the street to the sheriff’s office and asked if one of the deputies could drive her.
“Good morning, Alpha,” Marcus said. “Thank you for stopping by so early.”
“Of course,” Jericho said. “I have some chores at the house, so I thought I’d come and get your recommendations first thing.”
Marcus smiled. “Of course.”
He walked over to his computer and began typing. Jericho looked around while Payton’s father worked, and he came across a picture of her as a little girl on the desk. He picked it up to study her.
“She was beautiful, even then,” he murmured.
“Yes,” Marcus replied. “She was a happy child. Until…” His voice trailed off.
“Until you convinced her she wasn’t?”
Marcus frowned. “That’s harsh.”
“But accurate.” Jericho placed the picture back on the desk. “I suppose it’s neither here nor there, but let me warn you. I won’t tolerate you telling her any more bullshit. Understood?”
Marcus nodded stiffly. The printer shot out a piece of paper. He stood and retrieved it, holding it out to Jericho.
“I want us to have a working relationship, Marcus,” he said, taking the offered document. “I value your input about this pack and your work with the tourist trade. I welcome any and all ideas.”
Marcus’s shoulders relaxed a little. “I understand. Thank you, Alpha.”
Jericho nodded and left. He had wanted to be harsher with Marcus Jones because he couldn’t comprehend how a parent could hurt a child.
Then he remembered Payton’s plea and decided to let it rest. He’d just gotten his mate back, and he didn’t want to have to explain how her father had gotten a black eye.