Authors: Kate Rudolph
In the Alpha’s Bed
Stealing the Alpha, No. 3
By Kate Rudolph
Luke Torres should have felt comfortable in his own territory. But right now the heavy branches, bare and ready for winter's first snowfall, only made him tense. Strangers lurked in these woods. Enemies of the worst sort. The cowards hadn't tried to target him. Instead, they'd gone after his sister.
And Luke wouldn't stand for that.
Darkness had long since taken over and midnight approached. Luke could feel the claws beneath his skin ready to spring into action. Soon he would know the face of his enemy and he would tear out the spine of anyone who stood against him or tried to harm his own.
Maya Nunez and Sinclair walked beside him, with half a dozen other lions spread out in their animal forms. Usually the forest outside of Eagle Creek, Colorado teemed with life, no matter the time of day. But now all was silent except for the sound of his packmates’ breathing. Predators walked the night and all the prey was hiding.
The clearing opened before them, small, perhaps twenty feet across. Less than a week before, Luke had recovered his sister here after she'd been kidnapped by a mysterious foe. So much had changed since then. And yet they were nowhere near healing her. The witch had failed to lift the hex that was killing Cassie and they lacked the supplies to try again.
His foe hadn't told him to come alone, so he made no effort to hide his backup, at least not those who walked on two legs. While he could have brought even more lions with him, past mistakes had taught him well. He would not leave his home, his sister, undefended again. If he hadn't screwed up the first time, her life wouldn't be in danger.
All of their lives, most likely.
The air in front of Luke shivered momentarily and dissolved, revealing a tall man in a black trench coat, dark pants, and black boots. He must have meant for it to look intimidating, but as it was, it just looked silly. This witch was all skin and bones, the coat hanging off of him like it was hung on a wire hanger. But power crackled through the air and Luke knew that the danger this man presented wasn't in his meager bulk.
When no other witches showed themselves, Luke grew worried. Well, more worried. How many were hiding behind a cloak of magic? His lions hid by skill, using the lay of the land to their advantage. Using magic was cheating.
The witch took a look at Luke, Maya, and Sinclair and smirked. "Too scared to come on your own, oh great Alpha?" He spoke like he should be twirling his mustache or hiding behind a cape. If the situation weren't so dire, it would have been laughable.
Luke didn't have time for humor, but as far as enemies went, this one was almost insulting. "It seems you have the better of me. Who are you?" He had no interest in playing games, not with the stakes so high.
The man gathered himself up, standing an inch taller and speaking half an octave lower. "There are those who call me..." he bent over wheezing, the witch shot a glance to his right and winced. He gave a single nod and straightened, "Tim. I am Tim."
Maya shifted beside him and Luke trusted her to be ready to take on whoever was standing next to Tim, even if that witch was hidden. He didn't take his attention from their visible enemy. "Is the wheezing part of your name? Or was that for effect?" Clearly Tim was the front man for the real power.
Tim scowled, his teeth half bared. "You mock me when you are scared to roam your own territory alone?"
Luke wouldn't get angry, but he promised himself that he would have the pleasure of tearing this man's entrails out if he made one wrong move. "I know my own strength."
"Clearly you're weaker than you thought," Tim tilted his head slightly with a smirk. He held out a hand, unfurling his fingers slowly. Once his palm faced the sky he flicked his fingers in a strange pattern and a sputter of fire appeared. The witch tossed it from hand to hand.
"What do you want?" He didn't let himself get distracted by the fire. That had to be what Tim wanted.
"A great many things," Tim tossed the fire up and caught it, closing his fist and extinguishing the light, "Few of which you can offer me." He looked to his right once more, only for a second, before focusing on Luke.
"Then why the hell did you want me here?" Luke ground it out through clenched teeth. He'd been attacked on his own land once this month, and he never wanted that to happen again.
Tim wasn't offended by his tone, at least not outwardly. "I require information."
"You have an interesting way of going about getting it." Telling the man to fuck off would get Luke nothing; in fact, it would only make things worse. A part of him didn't care. But he tamped that part down. It was useless to him at the moment. "What information?"
"Where is the Well?"
"So you can poison my water?" What use would a witch have for a well? And couldn't they find that on their own? Neither Maya nor Sinclair seemed to know what he was talking about either, though they gave no outward indication. It was their lack of reaction that made Luke positive that they had no idea what the witch was talking about.
"Are you really so clueless?" Tim scoffed.
This was getting nowhere, and he'd already revealed his ignorance. There was no reason not to go all in. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I can't give you information that I don't have."
Tim faltered for a moment and his eyes shot to the right, he gave a slight nod and stiffened his shoulders, holding his bearing tight. "Do you want your sister to die? Give us the information and we will lift the hex. Continue this feigned ignorance and she will not live out the week."
Claws exploded out of Luke's hand, ready to rip out the throat of this impudent whelp. "Are you admitting you're the one who hexed my sister?"
Tim shrugged. "It is your actions now that decide her fate."
Luke had to cage the violence inside of him. Killing this witch would do nothing to solve his problem. It would only make it worse. "It isn't safe for you to go there right now. The river is flooded, I will need to make arrangements." A river ran south of his territory and unseasonably heavy rains had swelled the banks. There was no well in the area, but Luke hoped the bluff would buy him time.
"You have five days." Tim snapped his fingers and disappeared, the air shimmering where he had just stood. Luke has his lions scour the area, but there was no sign of the witches. It was as if they had never been there at all.
Cassie wasn't seizing anymore. That was progress. Mel watched Krista work over the girl. The witch could work miracles, but against an expertly laid hex and a newly turned shapeshifter who had already severely injured her, she was having a little trouble. Two days before, Cassie had shifted into her lion form unexpectedly. Even worse, she'd been so caught up in it that she'd opened a nasty gash across Krista's chest. The wound had been tended and was starting to heal, but a witch's constitution did not handle grave injury well. For now, Krista tended to the girl when she had the energy, but she was never alone in the room.
With Luke and Maya out hunting, that left Mel the babysit.
She'd been sitting there for more than an hour of nearly comfortable silence before a commotion broke out, the sound coming from the entrance. "Sounds like the alpha's back."
"Sure does," Krista didn't look at Mel when she spoke. Mel couldn't tell if the anger was due to her injury or from the history that they weren’t talking about. She didn't know which one she wanted it to be.
Maybe Bob would have been able to tell her, but he was off trying to track down whoever had hexed Cassie. He had contacts he wouldn't share with either Mel or Krista, but he would go and get the information for them. That was something.
Cassie let out a pathetic mewl and turned to her side, curling in to herself. She started shaking once more and fur sprouted out of her arm, coarse and tan. Krista moved back and let Mel take over. With a now practiced hand she grabbed the manacle that they'd mounted to the wall and chained the teenager. It was degrading, a horrible thing to do, but Cassie had agreed it was the only way to keep her and everyone around her safe.
But she was so worn down from the near constant shifting over the last two days that the shaking stopped and she slumped back, the fur on her arm receding into her skin, leaving behind the tan, human flesh. The girl's brown eyes opened and she gave Mel a sad grin. "At least I'm not missing out on going to the gym."
Mel smiled, but she didn't know how to respond. "I think I heard your brother come in," was what she finally settled on. And that seemed to perk Cassie up.
Cassie scooted back until she could sit against the wall. Her arms were still clamped over her head, but she didn't ask to be unbound. Mel didn't know if she thought she would turn again or if she had simply become so used to the manacles that she didn't notice them.
Maya walked in after a couple of minutes, but there was still no sign of Luke. Mel unlocked Cassie's restraints and left in search of him. After looking everywhere else on the residential floor, she found him in his room, sitting on his bed with his head cradled in his hands. She shut the door behind her as quietly as she could, but he heard her and looked up.
For a moment he smiled, though his eyes held the shadows that had been gathering over the last several days. The smile faded when Mel didn't move towards him. She kept herself still, forcing her feet not to march across the room so that she could gather him into her arms. They hadn't touched at all in the past two days and there was an almost physical ache at the lack of contact.
But he wasn't her mate.
It was Bob's teasing comment that had put the thought in her head back when they were in Mexico. And it was completely wrong. Thieves didn't shack up with alphas; it never worked, no matter how good it felt to kiss him, to be held by him. Because it was impossible, she wasn't going to think about it. Impossible theft was one thing – with strategic planning and a solid team, she could pull off almost anything. But romance? Never.
So Luke Torres wasn't her mate and there wasn't anything that would make her say otherwise.
"I'm guessing it didn't go well?" she asked.
Luke shook his head. He moved over to one side of the bed to give her enough room to sit, though the bed was so massive that space had not been an issue. Even though she knew she shouldn't, Mel crossed the room and sat next to him.
"About as well as could be expected," Luke replied. "Threats, insults, and demanding the impossible."
"What was the demand?" Mel relaxed her leg and let it lean against Luke. She wasn't
touching him since they were both wearing clothes. But it felt so good that she didn't pull herself away.
"I'd rather just tell everyone once." He stood and broke the miniscule contact between him. Mel wasn't disappointed, not at all. He walked over to his bedside table and rummaged around in the top drawer.
"What are you doing?" Mel couldn't keep the smile from flitting at the corners of her lips.
Luke pulled a small black velvet bag out of the drawer and tossed it to her. "I think you should have this back."
Without even reaching into the bag, Mel knew what it was. But she still upended it and let the clear stone suspended on a silver chain fall into her hand. The scry stone. The damned thing that had started this mess. With it, she could track down the woman who had killed her parents. Luke had stolen it from her after she’d stolen a red beryl gem called the Scarlet Emerald from his vault.
"Why?" she asked. Cassie wasn't better, the Scarlet Emerald was long gone in the hands of an unknown buyer. Everything that she had done for or to Luke had only made things worse.
Luke closed the drawer. "We had a deal. You kept up your end of the bargain, and I'm a man of my word."
If that was the case, why did it feel like she'd just been punched in the gut? Mel had gotten what she wanted and could just walk out the door right now and never look back. But that felt so wrong. "Are you telling me to go?" If the job was finished, why would she stay?
Luke let her question hang in the air for a moment. "I don't want you here because you want a payout. I don't want that kind of obligation between us."
She couldn't react to that, she didn't know how. Instead, Mel slipped the long chain over her neck and let the stone rest under her shirt right between her breasts. "Shouldn't you be keeping my priceless gems in your vault?"
Luke grinned. "You would just steal them if I left them in such an obvious place." He walked over to the foot of the bed and placed his hands on either side of her. Mel didn't give any ground, she would never surrender her space to an alpha. They never let up. But all Luke did was quickly kiss her cheek and pull back. "Let's go talk to the others. I have news."
Mel didn't say anything to him on the walk to Cassie's room. Luke was at war internally. He didn't know whether it was right to give her back her stone, but the thought of her remaining out of obligation, or just because it was a job, didn't sit well with him. Mel was not just some business associate who would disappear into the night once this was all done. She was his mate.
At least, he thought she was.
And now that she had no reason to stay, he wanted her to stick around to see if this thing between them really would blossom into something real. Ten minutes in Mexico hardly counted, and the next time he got his hands on her, he wasn't letting go. No phone call was going to interrupt the next time they had time alone together.
But at the moment he needed his head in the game. Maybe Krista would know something about this well that Tim and the other witches wanted. The pack would be meeting soon, and he needed to gather as much information about their enemy and what he was after as he could before he spoke to his inner circle. Whatever was coming would be dangerous and he needed everyone to be as prepared as possible.
He opened the door to Cassie's room and saw Krista seated on a stool next to his sister's bed. Maya was half a step behind her and Krista held Cassie's hand, speaking softly. Despite her tone, he could hear her. "It may affect your ability to shift after this is all sorted out."
"Any idea when that's going to happen?" Cassie asked.
Luke was glad to hear his sister speaking. And if it hadn't been for the horrible pressure to find some way to fix her, to make this all go away, he would have spent every moment in this room with her.
But whatever the witch was proposing put him on edge. Especially when Krista and Cassie both stiffened when they realized that he had entered the room. Maya didn't move at all and he couldn't tell if it was because she was hiding her reaction to him or that she had none to show. "What will affect her ability to shift?" He tried to keep calm. But it had taken Cassie so long to shift, she had already lost so much because of it, that he couldn't let her sacrifice it so easily.
He heard Mel lean on the door behind him. Krista half turned on her stool so that she could take a look. She moved over a little so that Cassie could see him as well. His sister smiled at him and Luke felt a pang in his chest. Ever since she'd been hexed, she'd lost weight, her cheeks hollowed, and her skin grew sallow. Part of her was fading away and there wasn't a damn thing he could do to fix it. Except give those witches something he didn't know he had.
"Hey," said Cassie, her voice hoarse and sweet. "Give me a hug." She held out her arms. At least she wasn’t handcuffed at the moment.
Krista stood up and he took her place, sitting beside his sister and pulling her close. She felt like a feather in his arms, frail enough to float away on a stiff breeze. But he could also sense a core of strength within her, resolve to make it out of this thing. He kissed her cheek and let her go to ask, "What is Krista talking about?"
He expected the witch to talk, but it was his sister who answered. "Krista thinks she can stop my shifting. Maybe let me control it." She met his eyes, her brown gaze so similar to his own. Sometimes people said that it was impossible to tell that they were half-siblings. Those people never paid attention to Cassie's eyes.
"It sounds dangerous," without more information he couldn't let his sister go through with something that might cut her off from something so vital. He looked at Krista. "What are you proposing?" It came out as a rough demand.
Maya stiffened but said nothing.
Krista glanced at Mel before speaking, the smallest smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. The expression belied her words. "Think of this hex like a computer virus," she said. Luke raised an eyebrow and she kept explaining. "If Cassie were a computer, shapeshifting would be a program running in the background. It's always there, but it's not always active."
"Yes, I know how it works," and he didn't need someone without a second skin explaining it to him.
Krista tried to cross her arms, but winced and let her injured arm hang. "The hex has targeted her shifting. I think when I tried to break it, something happened. They got tied together in a big knot. I can undo the knot, block the virus from her shifting program, so to speak, but it might prevent her from shifting at all."
Luke looked at Cassie, "No, it's too dangerous. Not after--" He stopped himself from completing the sentence.
But Cassie completed it for him. "Not after I got myself into this mess because I wanted to shift so badly? Not after I let myself get kidnapped by vampires? Not after I did this to myself? Which is it, Luke?"
"That's not what I meant," it came out harsher than he intended. Cassie had only been kidnapped after she'd tried to strike a deal with Mel weeks ago when Mel was his prisoner. Vampires had used a momentary lapse in his guard to sneak in and take her. It all felt like centuries ago now, but part of that was because he hadn't had any time to truly deal with the fallout.
Her jaw hardened. "It's not your choice to make."
"The hell it isn't." Luke wanted to stand, to pace, but he stayed seated. "You're in my territory, Cass. You think I'm going to just let some witch kill you?"
"I'm dying anyway!" It should have been a shout, but it came out a hoarse cough. "The shifts are coming faster and faster. I don't know how much longer I'll last."
The hopeless sorrow in her voice stabbed Luke to the core. He wanted something he could fight, some way to make her better. Instead he was stuck here, pinning his hopes on a witch he barely knew to help his sister and save his people.
Before he could say anything else, Mel spoke. "Did the people who did this to her show up? If they want something from you, they'll probably break the hex in exchange."
Luke wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to throw caution to the wind and ask for her advice even before taking it to his trusted pack advisors. But he couldn't. He had a responsibility to his people, and at the forefront of that he could not bring confidential information to someone who had recently been his enemy.