Authors: Kate Rudolph
Luke let out a hollow sound that might have been a laugh. "With Cassie hurt?" He shook his head. The forest narrowed before them and he let Mel go ahead. "I may be the alpha, but I doubt that would stop my mother from rampaging through the state and burning everything down until she rescues her precious babies."
Some righteous anger might be useful. "There are worse things she could do," Mel reasoned. "But why can't you just tell them that you've got it all under control?" Even if that wasn't exactly true. "Don't they trust you?"
This was where Mel got hung up on the parents thing. Even though Tina had rescued her, she'd never tried to be a mom. Mel couldn't imagine someone rushing in, guns blazing out of selfless protection.
But Luke didn't seem to understand her question. He sputtered a little, his sounds trying to form into a question that she couldn't decipher. Finally, he gathered his thoughts. "It's not about trust," he explained. "Cassie and I are her kids."
Mel shrugged. "Krista's mom would let us handle everything ourselves."
"Didn't she train you both to be lawless thieves?"
"Aren't all thieves lawless? Wait--" Mel stopped where she stood. She thought she spotted something under a large rock a little ways off the path. She stepped over and around several trees and knelt beside the underbrush.
"What is it?" Luke didn't follow. He trusted her to investigate.
Mel stood and shook her head. She made her way back to him. "I thought I saw something, but not so much."
Mel didn't want to end their conversation. She felt like she was learning so much about this man. "So you've got a good relationship with your parents?"
"I guess I do. But Scott isn't an alpha, and my mom hasn't been an alpha in more than twenty years. They don't always realize the weight that I've got on my shoulders."
"That sounds--" She couldn't finish the thought.
A scream went up, ripping through the forest and sending both Luke and Mel running towards it.
Without hesitation, Luke sprinted towards the scream, and Mel was not far behind him. He recognized the cries as one of his pack members, even if he wasn't quite sure who. The forest blurred around him as he vaulted over fallen trees and around obstructions in the path.
If he paused to think about how he was moving, he would stumble, but this wasn't Luke's first run. After a minute he made it to a small clearing, barely more than six feet across.
A vampire held Mick close, fangs buried in the teenager's throat.
Luke launched himself at the creature, letting out a roar as he went. If Mick had been human, Luke would have never tried it. It was far too dangerous of a move for someone without the hearty constitution of a shapeshifter.
They both went down under Luke's weight and the vampire let go of Mick, turning his attention to his new aggressor. Luke growled at him, showing his own fangs to the pale beast.
The vampire should have looked human. They didn't have a second form, their only supernatural trait their long fangs. But this vampire was in the midst of a hunger-crazed rage. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot, his mouth frozen in a hiss leaving his fangs on display.
Luke moved, jerking to the side and keeping the creature's eyes on him. He could tell that Mel was trying to get Mick out of the way and to safety. He didn't want to risk either one of them falling prey to this beast.
The vampire's eyes stayed glued to him, and when the vampire lunged forward, Luke dodged, pushing him to the side and watching him tumble over. The vampire rolled completely over once before springing back to his feet with a little bounce. It would have been impressive if they hadn't been locked in combat.
But the vampire was still not steady on his feet and Luke took the advantage, charging forward and pummeling him with his fists. Had he been in his other form, the vampire would have been ripped to shreds by his claws. As it was, he had no time to shift, instead using his inborn strength to inflict as much pain as he could.
Luke got in a few good hits before the vampire bucked, unbalancing Luke and knocking him to the side. At another time, the vampire might have gone in for the kill, but this one knew he was outnumbered. He turned and ran, heading deep into the forest, away from Luke's house and the way that he and Mel had come from.
If not for the injured Mick, Luke would have given chase. But the vampire could have friends waiting and he would not run into an ambush.
Mel wiped a bit of cloth against Mick's neck. She was not particularly gentle and he winced every time she made contact with his cuts.
"Are you alright?" Luke asked.
Mick winced again and pulled away from Mel, yanking the cloth from her hands. "You're worse than that damned bloodsucker."
"What are you doing here?" she asked in a tone verging on accusatory.
While Luke wasn't happy with the boy's presence, he didn't understand the scrutiny. This was pack land and pack members were free to roam at will with very few exceptions. Mick was currently in deep shit for failing to protect Cassie, but even he was allowed periodic walks.
Mick defended himself before Luke could say anything. "I told you already that I wasn't spying!"
Even if Luke had been a dull man, that would have set off alarm bells. "I didn't realize you two had spoken." The boy's wounds were already healing and Luke's patience was running thin. While Mick was allowed to be in this part of the territory, it was strange for him to be here now.
So why hadn't Mel told him anything about Mick's espionage?
She made up for it now. "He was lurking outside the house earlier today."
"I was standing. No lurking involved." And now the indignant tones of a teenager being ignored suffused his words. He'd admit anything in a few seconds so long as they believed him.
"Why were you standing out there?" Luke asked, "And what were you doing here now?"
Mick shrugged, wincing when he jostled his still tender skin. "Just curious. Things have all gone on lockdown the past few weeks and the guys wanted to know what's up. We all want to know."
Luke didn't like it, but Mick had a point. He'd been keeping things on a need to know basis when it came to Mel and what was going on with Cassie. His inner circle knew, but the other shapeshifters that he was responsible for had no idea.
And he had to keep it that way for now.
When this was over he would tell all, but until then he needed to keep them safe. If the choice was between that and satisfying the idle curiosity of children, he'd choose safety every time.
"You're a bit deep in the woods for idle curiosity," said Luke. "And if you or your friends wish to know what's going on, you ask. You don't spy and sneak. You're nearly an adult. Act like it if you ever want responsibility in this pack. You are still a long way from proving yourself."
Mick sputtered, but he couldn't complete a full sentence.
"Let's head back." Luke didn't have time to give the kid a full lecture, not in the middle of the woods, not when he'd just scared off a vampire.
"I can go home myself," said Mick.
Mel huffed out a laugh, "Because that vampire couldn't track your ass down and eat you alive the second we're out of view, right?"
"I can fight one stupid vampire!"
Luke shook his head. Normally, Mick was the levelheaded one among his friends. He'd never had these issues with the kid before. But every teenager acted out at one time or another. "Mel's right," he said. "I don't want you getting captured or killed."
"You're trusting a goddamned thief over a member of your own pack?" Mick scowled and threw the cloth at his neck to the ground. His wound had closed, though the skin looked thin, tender, and brightly red.
Luke growled, the sound emanating from the back of his throat. "She's--"
"Right," Mel finished before Luke could say anything damning. "And you're being dumb." She stood and had the audacity to ruffle Mick's light brown hair. "Now stand your ass up or I'll drag you back."
She turned around and headed back the way she and Luke had come, leaving the men to follow. After about three seconds and one shared, confused glance, they did.
Getting Mick home turned out to be a bit of a logistical problem. But Mel ended up driving the ATV with Luke running ahead, leading her into town. About a block from Mick’s house, the teenager motioned for Mel to stop the vehicle. "I can make it the rest of the way myself."
She and Luke shared a look, but they let the kid go. He was more or less safe now. She shimmied back to the passenger seat so that Luke could drive them back home. He knew the way back better than she did.
But Luke wasn't ready to head back just yet. "Are you hungry?" he asked.
Now that he mentioned it, her stomach growled. "Starving."
"Let's grab a bite before we go back." He didn't wait for her to agree. Instead, he took them down the road until they reached the main street in Eagle Creek. He pulled the ATV into the parking lot of the Eagle Creek Bar & Grille and slid off, offering her a hand.
Mel heard the laugh of a woman abruptly cut off as the door to the restaurant closed, leaving Mel and Luke alone in the parking lot. She hesitated. "It's cool if you want to just go in and pick something up." His pack mates would be in there, ones that had no idea that she existed. And they would wonder who she was and why she was with Luke. It would complicate things.
"Why?" A car door opened near them and people got out. Luke looked over and nodded, the man and woman were two other members of his pack. He looked back at her, waiting for an answer.
"Well," trying to say it out loud made it sound weird. "People will see us together."
Luke raised an eyebrow. "Yes, they will."
He didn't seem to get it. "And you'll have questions to answer. About who I am, or whatever." Did he not get it? Or did he not care?
"I'm the alpha." He said it with such authority that sent a shiver ran down her spine. "I only answer the questions that I wish to answer."
Mel persisted, "I don't want to make things difficult for you. Well, more difficult."
Luke laughed, "You've done nothing but make my life difficult." Despite the words, she knew it wasn't a criticism. "Why stop now?"
She balled up her fist and punched him lightly in the arm. "Jerk." She smiled as she spoke and gave up the argument. If he wanted her in there with him, she'd go.
The Eagle Creek Bar & Grille hadn't changed much since Mel, Krista, and Bob sat in it a few weeks before plotting how to steal the Scarlet Emerald from Luke. The only difference now was the clientele. The place was far from packed, and nearly everyone inside was a shapeshifter. Sometimes humans could pick up on the dangerous currents around them, even if they didn't know about the supernatural world. They got out of dodge before things went to hell.
Luke waved to the hostess but didn't wait to be seated. He led Mel to a booth in the back corner in a closed section of the restaurant. No one tried to stop him from sitting there. He pulled out a chair for her so that her back would be facing the wall and then he sat beside her. They would need to speak quietly to avoid being overheard. Shapeshifter hearing was far superior to a human's.
They didn't even need to order. Three minutes after they sat down a waitress put two beers on their table along with cheeseburgers with fries. "We had an order come up. Is this alright for you?"
Mel would have been pissed if she had to wait extra-long for her food just because the alpha stopped by. But no one else seemed to mind. Luke smiled and thanked her, letting her know they would wave her over if they needed anything else.
"It's good to be the king," Mel teased.
Luke took a big bite of the burger and swallowed before he answered. "I don't force any of this shit. The old alpha was a tyrant. I do my best to be fair."
"Is that why you took over?"
"If anyone asks, yes." His tone didn't invite further questioning, though Mel was now dying to know. Perhaps Luke had an impulsive streak that he had failed to suppress.
"Do you like being the alpha?" She'd never spoken to one for any length of time before she met Luke, and now that she had him to herself the questions kept coming.
"Most of the time."
But probably not when a psychopathic witch was trying to steal his land and kill his sister. Mel thought that no one would want to be an alpha under those circumstances.
"I've been wondering something." Luke eased into his question.
There were a hundred things he could ask. "Yeah?"
"Things seem tense between you and your partners."
It wasn't a question, but Mel understood just the same. "Yeah." This was a sore subject, something she hadn't fully come to terms with herself.
"Did they not want to be here?"
Of course he had no clue why things were the way they were. And as much as Mel wanted him to like her, she wasn't going to let him think that the problem was something simple. "No," she answered, "The tension is my fault."
"Oh, how--" he cut himself off, "You don't need to tell me."
"I think I want to." Only as she said it did she realize how true that statement was.
"You do?" From his skepticism, Mel doubted she came off as the type likely to share her failures easily. But today seemed the day for opening up to him.
"You probably won't like it," she warned. She didn't like it and she'd been the one to live it.
"Try me." Luke took a sip of his beer and kept his posture casual. But tension hovered in the air between them. He was just as nervous to hear her story as she was to tell it.
"I'm just giving a fair warning. I know that we've been..." How could she even phrase it? She didn't quite understand their relationship. "Flirting," she settled on. "But you might call it off once I'm done talking."
Luke lifted her hand off the table and raised it to his lips. For three seconds the restaurant went completely silent as those watching them registered what he had done. The kiss was chaste, it shouldn't have been worth noticing, but it was a public declaration or romantic intent from the alpha. "I doubt that," he said it like a promise.
Mel had to take a second to get her emotions under control. He wasn't supposed to make her feel this way, hot and cold, ready to run out the door or throw herself into his arms, the feelings changed by the second. She was scared to tell Luke; that was something that she could hold on to. It was the only familiar thing in the mishmash of her emotions.
She knew how to deal with fear. Mel embraced it, letting it sink into her and keep her sharp. She used the fear to make her strong, to allow her to tell Luke her biggest shame. "It happened in Cincinnati two years ago." She kept her voice low, aware that they were in a room full of people with extraordinary hearing. Luke was the only one who got to hear this story, not his pack. "We were on a big job, nearly a dozen people all coming together to steal a gauntlet worth a hell of a lot of money."
Luke just nodded. Unlike before when she mentioned her career, this time he didn't turn away. They were making progress. If only theft were the worst part of this story.
"I hit it off with another thief named Chance. He's human, but nearly as good as I am. He usually doesn't work supernatural jobs, though." She left out that he had been cute and funny and treated her well. The rest of the story was bad enough as it was. "Something went wrong at the end of the job. Chance and I had the gauntlet and we were in our car, we were clear. And I screwed Krista and Bob over." She still remembered the look of the bright city lights that night, how they'd glowed a sinister red in the fog.
"You don't seem like the type to betray your friends so easily." When she wouldn't look at him, Luke squeezed her hand, offering comfort.
Mel pulled her hand out of his grasp. "Don't try to find the good in me. I fucked up." And if he didn't believe it yet, he'd do so soon, "Do you remember the cuff links I gave you Mexico?" she asked.
They'd been charmed to interact with a ring she wore. If he turned the diamond to the green gem, it meant he was getting out, if he activated the red gem, it meant he needed help. "In the car, my ring started burning, the red gem glowing. Krista had activated the charm." Mel could still remember the panic she'd felt that night. She had barely been able to breathe. "I told Chance that we needed to turn around and get them. But he convinced me that we couldn't. And I let him convince me. We had the gauntlet, we were out safe. If we went back we could easily be caught or lose the take. Five minutes after she activated the charm, it went dead."
"Did you get out of range?" His posture was no longer relaxed and the inch of space between them felt like a mile.
Mel shook her head, "There isn't a range on them, they aren’t like cell phones. The only reason they stop working is if they're deactivated or the wearer dies. Once I felt that, I knew it was too late. If I had signaled back, or if we had turned around, maybe I could have stopped whatever happened to them."
"But they're not dead."
"I didn't know that for six months.” She skipped over what happened the rest of that night, it wasn't important, “The next morning, Chance was gone and so was the gauntlet. Everyone but me, Krista, Bob, and Chance was either captured or died on that job. I don't know if he arranged it or if he was just lucky. But he got all the money and I haven't seen him since. I think he's operating out of Miami now."
She grabbed for her beer and took a long swig. Even though it felt like she'd been telling the story for hours, the bottle was still cold. She couldn't even look at Luke. She'd never said what she'd done out loud before and now she didn't know how he'd be able to see her as anything other than a betrayer. As worthless.
"So you didn't try to see if they were alive once you were safe?" he asked. His tone was empty, she couldn't tell if he was angry or disgusted.
"I wasn't going back to Cincinnati. Going back to the scene of your crimes is how you get caught." And yet, here she was, sitting with the man she'd stolen from, in the same restaurant where she'd planned the robbery.
"You came back to help Cassie," he said quietly.
"I came back to get my scry stone." Why didn't he see how bad it was? Why was he trying to absolve her?
"But you came back and told us about the hex." Luke grabbed her hand again and waited until she looked at him, "Mel, we've all done bad things. But I don't believe for a single second that you would do that again."
This was too intimate, in this room full of people, they might as well have been the only ones there. Mel felt tears prick at her eyes, but she did her best to hold them back.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," she clung to her sarcasm, it was the only thing preventing a very embarrassing display of emotion. "If only Krista could see it that way." Bob had forgiven her as much as he was willing to. They would never be friends again, but he would work with her.
"Did you apologize to her?"
"How does that go? I'm sorry I chose some asshole over you? I'm sorry I left you to die? It's too little too late." She wanted to warn Luke right now, to tell him that she would betray him someday, that she knew nothing else, but she couldn't make the words come out. This was his warning. If he still wanted her after this, he was crazy.
But Luke didn't move away and he didn't let go of her hand. "I trust you, Mel." He said it with the heartfelt sincerity of another confession, one she was scared to hear. "Whether we're mates or not, no matter how this all ends up, I trust you. And I know you won't betray us."
Mel didn't know if she could be trusted, but his faith made her hope that it wasn't misplaced. He deserved so much better than her, and she didn't understand why he couldn't realize it.
"Oh hell, if you keep trusting me I'll probably just rob you blind." She meant it as a warning, but she couldn't help but smile.
They both knew she was lying.
Luke put his arm around her and pulled her close, "Anything you want..." He didn't finish the offer, but she understood.
All she needed to do was reach out and he would be hers. But Mel wasn't yet sure that she could trust herself enough to take him.
They turned away from heavy topics and finished their food. Luke drove the ATV back to his house with Mel clinging behind him. But this time she kept a little distance. He could feel it in the stiffness of her embrace and from the fact that she wasn't saying anything as they rode down the bumpy path through the woods.