Chapter Twelve

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"Who is Zaire to you?" Ife rolled onto her stomach and braced her chin on folded hands. It'd been three days since their mating. They'd rarely left her tent.

The shifters on Nate's team gave them their space, shooting knowing smiles whenever the pair came across them. The shaman were more reserved, especially Owen who flat-out scowled every time he saw them. Ife felt horrible for inadvertently leading the healer on. But in all fairness, he was old enough and should have known better.

Beside Ife, Nate stretched on the bed and braced one hand behind his head. He stared at the canvas ceiling, memories he alone could see playing through his eyes. Through their mating bond, she could feel his more powerful emotions. With the flashbacks came soul-deep sadness, emotional pain and a rage that caused her breath to catch. That last one sent terror through her.

"He murdered my parents," Nate began, his voice deepened with grief. Then, he told Ife all, holding nothing back. "I remember that day, even after all these years. My friends and I were playing football on our compound's central field. We saw a car coming down the driveway. It was a novelty as we rarely had visitors."

Clearing his throat, Nate turned toward her. Capturing Ife's hand, he began to lazily spin her pinky ring without seeming to realize what he was doing. "We ran after it and saw a gigantic – to our young eyes – shifter climbing the stairs to my parents' house."

Swallowing, Ife wasn't positive she wanted Nate to continue. The man he described had to be Zaire, and she knew the evil acts the First was capable of committing. Stilling his hand, she laced her fingers with his, lending silent strength as she received it in return.

"I wasn't allowed in," Nate continued after a time. "Only later did I learn the alpha of the Kobowen pride came from Sudan to challenge my father. Zaire was that alpha," he said, confirming Ife's suspicions. "My father was the First of Africa."

A gasp escaped Ife. Firsts were like kings of their domain. They were the shifter rulers within a territory. Although it wasn't a hereditary title, sons usually took over for their fathers. Having come from such strong stock, they were often the most powerful shifter in a region. Nate was practically a prince.

Her mate didn't seem to hear Ife's gasp, for he continued. "My father had no choice but to accept. My mother kept me close to her side as we watched. I remember my father was winning when a commotion distracted him. Akinyi used the distraction to kill my father. To this day, I can't recall what it was, only that it caused my father's death."

Sucking in a deep breath, Nate's arm tunneled under Ife, and he brought her close to his chest. The beat of his heart drummed against her ear. "My mother cried out that Zaire had cheated, that he was no real First. Enraged, he grabbed her by the hair with a hand that was still dripping with my slain father's blood. My mother was torn from my side."

The clearing of Nate's throat was loud in Ife's ear. "That was the last I ever saw of her. Akinyi killed her when she fought him as he tried to force a mating on her."

As he'd done with countless others since that time, Ife thought as Zaire had tried with her. When it became apparent she wouldn't allow it, he'd attempted to kill her.

Freeing her clasped hand, Ife reached around Nate. Pulling him close, she hugged him tightly. Her earlier predicament with Zaire must have brought back painful memories.

"A loyal friend of my parents' took me from the compound. There were American missionaries in Ethiopia. They learned I was an orphan and arranged for me to be adopted. My new parents' names were John and Katherine Allen."

Nate leaned back to capture Ife's gaze. Then, he confessed, "My true name is Nassor Jelani." His thumb traced Ife's cheek before he continued. "I cannot claim it until Zaire Akinyi is dead. He cannot know I'm the cub who got away."

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