Walking to the diner took longer than she’d thought. She’d been so busy grumbling about Barney that she’d slowed down, but the smell of those delicious burgers sped her up once more. Her stomach grumbled as she opened the door.
Another scent hit her then like a freight train. Barney was in here somewhere.
She started moving around the diner, looking for him. The moment she spotted him she slid into the booth with him. “Hey.”
He looked up from the menu and winced. “What?”
Heather smiled despite the sting of his dismissive tone. “The bacon cheddar barbecue burger is my favorite.”
Barney shrugged and looked back at the menu. “Good for you.” She couldn’t see his face, but his fingers clenched around the edges of the menu, turning his knuckles white. Maybe this was as hard on him as it was on her.
They sat in silence until a waitress appeared to take their order. When she left, Heather tried once again to talk to her mate now that he couldn’t hide behind the menu any longer. “How’s the investigation going?”
“Peachy.” He sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. His gaze was stony, encouraging her to drop it.
He stared at her with such indifference her heart started to pound in fear. “Barney. Please? Give me something, anything.”
For a moment his expression softened. His hands clenched, but then he put the on the table. His expression hardened again. “It can’t happen. Not yet.”
Not yet? What the hell did that mean? “I just—” She was interrupted as the waitress brought them their sodas. “Thank you.”
Barney grunted and opened up his straw, surprising her when he thrust it into her drink. “You look tired.” His tone was far less brusque. If anything, there was a hint of concern that made her heart race with hope.
“Long day at the shop, but I love it. There’s something new to see every day.” She loved what she was doing, so the long hours were worth it to her. “We had this one client come in who wanted a lobster tattooed on his ass. Full color, 3-D and everything.”
Barney choked on his drink. “A what?”
She shrugged. “Don’t ask me, but there was some kind of story behind it. Sometimes they tell us, sometimes they don’t. This guy just lay there and let Cyn and I work on him.”
Barney growled. “You touched his ass?”
She held up her hands. “They were covered in plastic gloves.”
He huffed and sat back. “I still don’t like it.”
She raised her brows. “Until you bite me, you don’t get a say.”
His blue eyes turned brown. “The fuck I don’t.”
The deep, rumbling tone made her shiver. “It’s my job, just like Hunting is yours.”
Barney stared at her, still looking aggravated.
“Cyn let me be the one to draw the lobster and the client almost cried over it.”
His smile was tight. “I still don’t like it.”
“Would it help if I told you he farted?”
“Nope.” His expression lightened. “Maybe.”
“Cyn made me shave his butt.”
Barney’s lips twitched.
“He had a pimple on one side that—”
He held up his hand, laughing. “Okay, that’s enough.” He shook his head. “TMI, baby.”
She shivered happily despite his grimace. “For a while there I thought you didn’t want us to be mates.”
He sighed. “That’s not it at all. There’s more going on right now than this thing between you and me. I have to focus on my duties first, and if I’m mated my attention will be split. Can you understand that?”
“Nope.” She leaned toward him. “Both Gabriel Anderson and Ryan have mates, and they’re both Hunters. Neither of them would think twice about doing their jobs.”
“But part of their attention will always be on their mates, wondering if they’re safe.” He put his finger over her lips when she tried to protest. “I’m not saying never, Heather. I’m saying later. Once I know no one is going to go after you for what I’m investigating. There are people who will kill you just for having the last name Barnwell. Others will discover you exist and…” He shuddered. “I can’t let anything happen to you. If we’re not mated—”
“They won’t smell me on you?”
He nodded soberly.
Shit. She hated that his reasoning made sense. “Damn it.”
“It’s the best way to keep your little Hobbit ass safe.”
Hobbit. That was his nickname for her. It sucked that she only came up to his armpit, but he could have come up with something cuter to call her than Frodo Baggins.
Still, she always got goosebumps when he called her that. It was his name for her, and she was becoming pretty fond of it. Not that she would ever tell him that.
“And if the Senate is after your family, then I have to keep them all safe, and not just because you’re cute. If they know I’m mated into the family, they could take not only you but any of them as hostages, and I’d do almost anything to get them back.”
Goddamn motherfucking shit humpers. How in hell was she supposed to argue with that? “This sucks rocks.”
“It does.” He put his hand over hers, twining their fingers together. “But not forever.”
She bit her lip, conflicted by his reasoning and her own desires. The mate dreams were driving her crazy, but she couldn’t find any words to use to argue with him. “Damn it.”
“I can’t push you away anymore.” He winced. “I can’t see that pain in your eyes. Not again.”
“You should have told me all of this before, jackass.” But she caressed his hand, hoping to take out some of the sting of her words. “I’m not stupid, you know. I can understand ‘Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!’”
That earned her a laugh. It might have been the flailing robot arm that did it. He was still holding her other arm hostage. “You’re cute. Like a Pomeranian, only louder.”
That did it. She glared at him. “One year.”
“Hmm?” He blinked, looking confused.
“That’s my time limit.” The burgers were placed in front of them, forcing their hands apart, but Heather’s focus was all on Barney. She shook her finger at him. “If you haven’t claimed me by then, I’ll track you down and give you a bite to remember.” She picked up her burger and held it out. “Deal?”
He smiled as he clinked burgers with her, like the bun-wrapped meat was the finest crystal champagne flute. “Deal. I figure my Bear won’t hold out longer than that anyway.”
She blushed brightly. If his Bear was getting as pushy as her Fox, she might just be mated well before the deadline.
With a contentment she hadn’t felt in quite some time, she bit into her burger, happy just to be in her mate’s company.