Veryl itched under Gerri’s imperious scrutiny, feeling even more inadequate than he had the first day he’d tried out for the grade-school arena team. He’d come a long way since then as an athlete, but he was woefully unprepared to re-enter the dating world. Ever since he and his partners had secured their pro-League status, they’d agreed that dating had to take a back seat to their training. It had been three years since he’d even slept with a woman.
He still didn’t believe this step was necessary to achieve the advantage they hoped they’d get from finding mates. But Cato and Dez clearly had different opinions. He owed it to them to try. When the attempt failed, he’d make his case again for the three of them taking their relationship beyond professional. Their animals were in sync; it wouldn’t be a stretch to add a physical element that took them out of the arena for a change. And he loved them both more than life, though the remote, introspective Cato was the one whose attention he craved the most.
“I understand you and your teammates are all looking for mates, is that correct?” Gerri finally asked. “That’s highly unusual for arena champions as highly ranked as the three of you. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather wait until you’ve retired from competing?”
Veryl swallowed a huge gulp of steaming tea, wincing as the fluid burned going down. His dragon instantly absorbed the heat, reveling in it. He took another swallow to delay having to answer a little longer, then braced himself and looked at her. He could do this. Treat her like an opponent. Though as he met the woman’s intense, blue-eyed stare he decided he never wanted to be stuck in the arena with her.
“We believe the threat of losing our edge after mating is an old wives’ tale. If that’s the case, there’s no sense in waiting. In fact, I think the bond with a mate will give us an edge other teams don’t have.”
Gerri’s eyes sparkled. “Other teams besides Hot Wings, you mean. I saw the exhibition match between your two teams. It couldn’t have been a good feeling, having your asses handed to you by a duo. Good thing you didn’t make it easy for them, or you may as well be retiring now.”
“Yeah … that might have something to do with it.” Veryl gave her a sheepish smile. That she was a fan somehow made it easier for him to relax.
“So, tell me what you’re looking for in a mate.”
“I …” He faltered, then shrugged helplessly. “I honestly have no idea. Someone who’d be happy mated to a champion, I suppose.” He stared down at his hands, stretching his fingers wide on his thighs. These hands were trained to fight, with the dragon’s spirit flowing in his veins ready to manifest on command, even if he only needed a single talon. He hadn’t used his hands for much else in too long. Not to make love to a woman, nor …
The image of a newborn baby popped into his head, unbidden, at the memory of Cato’s speech the day before, which had prompted their trip to Earth. The baby was fragile, soft, and so small he could hold it easily in both palms. He turned his hands over, cupping them into a bowl-shape for a second, then clenched them into fists and looked up at Gerri.
She had her head tilted to the side, watching him with one finger lightly tapping at the edge of her mug. One pale eyebrow lifted as though she waited for him to share his revelation.
“I want to be a father. So I guess whoever she is should want that too. Dez and Cato are like a family to me. They always will be, but it isn’t like we can magically replicate a new generation of arena champions. Not that I’d necessarily expect my kids to be champions …”
“You want a brood mare. Is that what you’re saying, then?” Gerri asked, tilting her chin down and leveling an even more disorienting stare at him. “I’m sure there are dozens of females on Aurora who would be ecstatic with that kind of arrangement.”
“What? No! That isn’t what I meant. I’d actually rather she didn’t know I’m a champion. At least, not at first.”
“Do you even really want a mate, Veryl?”
His pulse throbbed in his neck and he pushed back against the cushions, then abruptly stood, too agitated to sit still under her critical gaze. He strode to the window and stared down at the street far below.
Gripping the frame on either side of the window, he clenched his teeth. This was ridiculous. He knew who he wanted, but that wasn’t enough, was it? He couldn’t have Cato, Dez, and a family, even if his partners wanted him back. But it was clear his friends wanted something different.
“This isn’t easy for me,” he finally said.
“Not everyone is able to articulate their desires,” Gerri said behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, but she was still seated, sipping her tea. She set the mug down and uncrossed her legs, turning slightly in her armchair so she was facing him with one arm draped over the back of the chair.
“Veryl, there is no risk in telling me what you want. The more details you share, the easier it will be for me to match you with someone appropriate. And if she doesn’t work out, I’ll refund my entire fee or find you someone else.”
He shook his head slightly, at first simply disagreeing with what she’d said, then in denial.
“That’s the thing. I know who I want, but they aren’t interested, so whoever she is probably won’t work out unless she’s willing to be just that—a brood mare. And I’ll be damned if I ask a woman to be that for me. Don’t you think your clients deserve better? They come to you to find loving partners. I can be a father—I’d love the fuck out of any and every child I could have, but my heart …” He clenched his teeth, suddenly overcome by emotion. Letting out a ragged breath, he finally blurted out the thing he’d never thought he’d say out loud. “I am in love with my arena partners. I don’t see that going away.”
“I see,” Gerri said, nodding. Then she leveled a piercing stare at him. “Do you trust me?”
Veryl propped his butt against the wide windowsill and shrugged. “Sure. I don’t really have much to lose.”
“Perhaps not, but I want you to try to find some optimism, if you can.” She leaned over and scribbled something on a pad of paper on her coffee table, then ripped off the sheet and handed it to him. “Check into this resort tomorrow and wait for my call. I’ll let you know when and where to go next.”
Veryl took the instructions and glanced at them, then stuffed the paper in his pocket and left in a daze. He wasn’t sure he could face his teammates after articulating his true feelings to Gerri. It was one thing to suggest a physical bond, but something entirely different to confess he was in love. Still, he reminded himself they hadn’t been there, hadn’t heard him spill his deepest secret.
Dez and Cato had each had separate appointments with the renowned matchmaker, and they’d agreed to meet up at a local bakery afterward, so he forced himself to focus and headed in that direction, trying to ignore the weight of uncertainty making him drag his feet.
If she could actually find him someone who could fill the hole left by Cato’s rejection, it would be a miracle.