Authors: Carol Davis
No, she decided. She had nothing more to say to him.
And she did sort of wish he’d vanish off the face of the earth. That could only be a help to the rest of the population.
After thanking Jeremiah—though she wasn’t entirely sure what she was thanking him for—she left the house and stood outside in the sunshine, soaking in the peace and quiet of her surroundings until Aaron approached with his hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans. He seemed to have been walking for a while, maybe as long as she’d been in the house trying to get through to Lane.
“Your father said they’ll take him back to the mainland,” she said, nodding at the house. “Where, exactly?”
“Are you sure he’ll—that when he’s all healed up, he won’t try to get even?”
Aaron’s expression turned darker than she’d seen it since his battle with Micah. “He’s been warned. If he comes back—if anyone comes back on his behalf—he’ll regret it. They won’t turn him loose until he understands that.” He paused, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “More than likely he’ll get drunk at some point and rant for a while about being chased through the woods by a wolf who turned into a man. But no one will believe him.”
“Has that happened before?”
He looked briefly behind her, at the house. “Maybe you haven’t experienced it before—the willingness to fight to the death to defend your family. I suppose you haven’t been put in that position. Humans usually aren’t, at least not in places like the one where you lived. But understand, Abby: if the pack is threatened, we’ll do what we need to do. We know how to do it cleanly, and well.”
That made her shudder, and again she wrapped her arms around herself.
“A wolf colony in Wyoming was slaughtered almost to its last member,” Aaron said. “Only two escaped. Of course they looked human. The authorities blamed the Sioux, and used it as an excuse to slaughter a hundred of
Abby blinked. “That had to be a long time ago.”
“There are more of you… there? In the United States?”
Aaron nodded. “There, Canada, Russia, China… everywhere that a glimpse of a wolf in the wild wouldn’t be cause for alarm.”
“Then there are a lot of you.”
“No,” he said. “There never were.”
“And you have no idea where you came from.”
Smiling—though there didn’t seem to be any humor behind it—Aaron pressed a fist to his chest, over his heart. “From here,” he said, then pointed to the sky. “From there. From a place of magic and mystery. That’s all we need to know. We
. We have always been, and we will always be. Provided we defend each other to our last breath. Defend the pack. Defend the wolf.”
That made Abby shudder a little, because there was so much conviction in his voice. She could see in his eyes the golden glow of the wolf and remembered how regal, how otherworldly the animal had seemed.
Those things are only stories
, a voice in her head suggested.
Yet here he was.
“I thought—” she started, then had to stop to collect herself, to step back into reality. “I thought about asking Lane to contact my father, and my job. To tell them I wouldn’t be coming back. There’s paperwork—”
“It can be handled for you.”
That was Jeremiah, who’d come out of the house. “All of it?” Abby asked him.
He nodded. “Make a list. Give us your keys. The elders have documents you can sign, that will be delivered to the mainland. A video recording seems to work well. Say you’ve relocated, not ‘goodbye’.”
“But will it be ‘goodbye’?”
“We find it works well if you send some messages later on. Christmas. A birthday. After a while they’ll forget about you.”
Abby came close to objecting to that, to insisting that
would care that she’d gone, but she realized he was right. Her father and brothers wouldn’t come looking for her; they’d barely contacted her after she moved away from home, even on special occasions. Her college friends and former co-workers she’d socialized with generally didn’t do more than post an occasional comment on social media.
The thought created a lump in the pit of her stomach, but she couldn’t say she’d spent much more time trying to maintain a relationship with any of them than they had with her.
Maybe she’d been meant all along to sever all those ties and walk away.
To come here, to Aaron.
Feeling more than a little lost, she wrapped her arms around him tightly and held on as if she thought a tornado might suddenly drop out of the sky and try to sweep her away. Again, he seemed as solid and immovable as a boulder… and at the same time gentle and protective. With a light hand he stroked her hair, caressing her until she settled down, and she nestled against him with her face turned toward his chest so she couldn’t see anything other than the dark blue of his shirt.
After a minute, she felt him shift his weight.
“Aaron,” said a voice she recognized as Luca’s. “You should come now. The elders are ready to render their decision.”
This must be what it was like to be a finalist on one of those TV talent shows, Abby thought. You’d made it this far, against overwhelming odds—and at this final step, you could win everything… or nothing.
Maybe if I sing something for them
, she thought, mostly to distract herself.
Caleb, Mason, and Jameson were again sitting behind that big oak table, without a trace of humor or kindness on any of their faces.
They all had families—Aaron had told her as much—and she tried to imagine each of them during a tender moment: after the birth of a child, maybe, or sitting with their wives on a warm summer night.
Did any of them have a sense of humor? Would she be able to talk casually with any of them, after they’d known her for a while? Or was everyone supposed to regard them with so much respect that a casual, friendly relationship was impossible?
Her heart was doing mad gyrations in her chest, and there was an ache at the back of her neck that threatened to turn into a full-blown migraine.
It was the
, she thought. Couldn’t they just get this over with?
She looked at Caleb and tried to work up a small smile, something polite and deferential, while she clung to Aaron’s hand. None of the three men seemed to object to her hanging on to Aaron, and she wondered if that was a good sign.
It had to be. Didn’t it?
“Abby Sullivan,” Caleb said in a deep rumble. “You come to us requesting to join the pack, to become life mate with our son Aaron, to stand at his side, honor and respect him as you honor and respect each member of the pack.”
That didn’t seem to demand a response, so Abby said nothing. Then Caleb’s brows furrowed, and she stammered, “Yes, sir.”
“Aaron, son of Jeremiah and Rachel,” Caleb went on. “You request that we welcome this female to this pack as your life mate, and swear that you will honor and respect her and protect her from harm, as you protect the rest of the pack.”
“I do,” Aaron replied.
“You are aware that this is a highly unusual circumstance. That we do not admit humans to the pack without careful consideration; that first and foremost our loyalty must stand with those who are of true blood, who are the children of our Creator, part of the land and the sky, so that we can ensure the safe continuation of our pack.”
Caleb laid his hands flat on the scarred tabletop. His fingers seemed to grow longer, and Abby swore she could see the beginnings of claws at his fingertips. Was he letting her see that side of him, she wondered, or was it something that bled through when he felt stressed and uneasy?
Then, for the first time, she noticed a wide scar on his left wrist, something that surprised her. Was it the result of a battle? And why, like the scar on Luca’s shoulder, hadn’t it healed? Had the wound been that serious, that it couldn’t heal completely?
“Your mind wanders, Abby Sullivan,” he said.
Her first thought was to disagree, to deny it. But there was such razor focus in his eyes that she knew it would be a waste of time. Even without a mate bond, he seemed to know what she was thinking—or at least that she was thinking about inconsequential things.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
They weren’t being televised; no one was involved in this final judgment but Abby and Aaron and the three elders. So why did she feel as if everyone in the world was watching, all seven billion of them, and that they were all ready to find fault with her?
Aaron’s grip on her hand tightened slightly, and she looked over at him.
“Honored ones,” he said. “I ask you to remember the days when you found your own mates.”
“That has no—” Mason began.
“With respect,” Aaron said. “It does.”
Jameson cleared his throat. The sound surprised Abby; he spoke so little that she’d begun to wonder if he attended these meetings only as a formality, if maybe he’d inherited the position of elder and no one else really thought he was worthy. That made her like him more than the other two.
Maybe she could approach him in private and plead her case to him. He’d been curious about her phone, she remembered. Maybe he wasn’t as suspicious of humans as the others were, and would be more willing to talk to her.
“Let the boy speak,” Jameson said.
“Thank you, Elder,” Aaron said with a nod.
The other two looked as though they might object, but they didn’t, and after a moment Aaron went on.
“We all have our uncertainties,” he said, looking at each of the elders in turn. “Not whether we’ve chosen the right mate, but whether we’ll be able to provide for them. Keep them safe. Nothing is promised to us; we’ve faced some terrible storms, winters we thought would never end. Some years, food is scarce, or our water is contaminated. Our babes are fragile. These are the things I fear. Not that I’ve chosen wrongly. I know in my heart that Abby is the mate the gods intended for me, and my wolf knows it as well.”
Then he turned to Abby. “We have no idea where we came from, how the first wolf was born. Was he human, and transformed? Or was he wolf, and was given the gift of speech? We do know that first wolf was a warrior, not because we’ve been told that, but because he must have been in order to survive.”
He was so earnest about it that all Abby could do was nod.
“I remember your mate,” he said to Caleb. “She was kind to me when I was a child. Kind, but firm. A teacher. A source of wisdom, and things to ponder. And her apple butter was second to none.”
That startled the old man, and he paled a little.
“Honored one,” Aaron said. “I can see her in my mind’s eye, as wise as any wolf could hope to be, with our best interests always at heart. She tended to me once when I fell. I was very small. She dried my tears, then asked that I help her gather kindling for the fire. She didn’t coddle, or scold.”
The old man was looking past Aaron, at the opposite wall. Aaron took a step forward, tugging Abby along with him, and rested his free hand on the table.
“I can’t imagine that she would recommend a harsh judgment,” he said.
For a long time, Caleb was silent. Then he said in a rumbling voice, “You make assumptions that are not your place to make. Only my mate knows what she would say to us now, and she is with the spirits.”
To the obvious surprise of everyone in the room, he got up from the table and walked out of the house, closing the door firmly but silently behind him.
In a way, it seemed like he was still there at the table; his presence was so powerful that it seemed like he could easily be in two places at once.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have brought that up,” Abby said nervously.
She didn’t dare look at the other two elders, for fear that she’d find distress or even anger in their eyes. She couldn’t imagine that any of them was fond of being told—even in the form of a suggestion—what to do, what to decide. But of course Aaron had to press their case, to speak his mind one more time before the elders issued their decision, in case they still had doubts about his intentions.
This was a damned complicated place to live, she decided.
But then, what place wasn’t?
What place didn’t demand a lot of you, in one way or another?
The right thing to do presented itself quickly, and before she could talk herself out of it, she let go of Aaron’s hand and hurried toward the door. He called after her, but she shook her head and went outside, where she found Caleb standing a short distance away.
He frowned when he saw her coming, but made no move to get away or to tell her to go back inside and wait for him to get done dithering around.
“I don’t know what I need to promise you,” she said. “I don’t know what to say that you’ll believe. I’m sure you’ve made up your mind already. Everyone seems to tolerate Granny Sara, and some of you seem to like her. Maybe love her. I know you have reasons to be suspicious. Yes, humans are unpredictable and cruel and two-faced. But we’re also loyal and fierce and willing to fight for what’s ours.”
“I’m well aware,” Caleb said. More than anything else, he sounded tired.
“Is it Lane? You’ve reconsidered because Lane showed up here? That wasn’t my doing. I told him to leave.”
“Will there be others?”
“No,” Abby said. “Unless somebody announces that I’ve won the Mega Millions, my family has no interest in where I am or what I’m doing. They haven’t for years, not since I graduated from college.”
“You’re very willful.”
“I didn’t used to be. I used to be a pushover, because I was used to people bullying me. Maybe I never had anything worth standing up for before. Maybe Aaron is the first thing I’ve ever found that was worth fighting for.”
Caleb looked very old out here in the sunlight. Indoors, and in the woods, where the light didn’t hit him directly, he’d seemed strong and capable. But out here every flaw was on display. His left ear looked mangled, and his shoulders were stooped.
He looked nothing like an alpha, the strongest male in the pack.
, Abby thought.
He was forceful and direct in front of the others because he had to be. Whether “alpha” meant the same here as it did out in the wild, she wasn’t sure, but she couldn’t imagine that the pack would want to be led by someone whose best days were far behind him, who seemed to mourn for a long-lost mate to the point that it made him stubborn and unwilling to listen—to the point that he might well live more in the past than in the present.
If the others saw too much of that, they might demand that he step down.
“Caleb,” she said quietly, ignoring the need to address him by some title of respect. “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. Someone who was your whole life. I know what it’s like to get up in the morning feeling like the world’s going on around you, not
you. But this isn’t what she’d want for you. I know it isn’t.”
He started to bristle, but she put on the most stubborn face she could manage and planted her hands on her hips.
“You have to be fair,” she told him. “I insist that you be fair.”
And there it was: he was growing taller, straighter, allowing the wolf inside him to push forward. He didn’t go as far as transforming into the animal, but it was there nonetheless, holding him upright, cloaking him in its power and strength.
“You won’t harm me,” Abby said. “That isn’t who you are.”
His chest swelled. His shoulders were massive now, and she had the feeling that he could lift a car—if there had been any cars here—and throw it a hundred yards or more.
he was an alpha, not a mournful old man.
“What would she tell you?” Abby asked. “What would she want you to do?”
Instead of waiting for his answer, she turned and went back into the meeting house, where she was greeted by the startled expressions of the other two elders.
Aaron, on the other hand, seemed both amused and impressed.
“I got tired of waiting,” she told him.
As she’d hoped, they only had to wait another couple of minutes.
Caleb came back into the room, stared for a moment at his two fellow elders, then announced in a voice that was full of quiet power, “I will allow this human to become a member of the pack, and to become life mate to Aaron, son of Jeremiah and Rachel. I would advise you to agree.”
They did. Abby was quite sure they didn’t dare do otherwise.