Authors: Evelyn Glass
In the moonlit circle, twelve gray wolves faced the gathering, their golden eyes gleaming. She took a deep breath and pushed past the others to stand in front of them, lowering her gaze as was expected. The pup trotted next to her, and she nudged him closer to the Elders for inspection. He stood bravely, just as they'd practiced, while the older wolves communicated amongst themselves, considering him carefully. Never once did he look back at his mother or take a submissive stance. He gazed straight ahead as if he was alone in the clearing and not face-to-face with the most intimidating forces in his world.
She held her breath as one after another the Elders inspected her son, searching for physical flaws, signs of nascent moral corruption budding in his young mind, or fear. He endured their scrutiny with the bearing of his birthright, calm and confident against the potential for their displeasure. He had been prepared for this from the first day. He was his father's son through and through. The Elders would find no flaws.
Young as he was, he knew that facing the Elders—though necessary—would only happen once like this. Far more worrisome was the ongoing scrutiny of the others. He would always need to be a cut above the rest: smarter, stronger, faster, better in all ways and forever vigilant. He was the rising Alpha, the embodiment of the New Way, and his shoulders were already heavy with responsibility.
She'd awakened early Monday morning from a restless sleep and was greeted by her husband's troubled gaze from the other pillow. He'd been watching her—for who knew how long—and she caught the shift from worry to false cheer in a millisecond when he brightened for her benefit.
"Good morning, my beautiful wife." Strong arms pulled her in for a tender kiss.
"It's Monday." She bit the inside of her cheek, willing away the tears that stung the backs of her eyelids and the lump that rose in her throat.
"We can do this, Baby. We're going to be okay." His fingers caressed her forehead and cheeks but did nothing to abate the roiling in her gut.
Why do we have to go back?
But her rational brain didn't control things with Parker, not when he brushed his lips softly across hers and the knot of fear burned away as quickly as a dry leaf in the heat of her own passion. Not when his kisses erased everything, even the inner recesses of her mind, as her body bloomed for him. He rolled her on top of him and cupped her face in his hands, moving beneath her until they aligned, hard to slick, and he barely had to move to slip inside her. His mouth on hers was hot and urgent though he let her body take the lead, and he devoured her from beneath as she clutched him with her thighs and moved on him. It was all forgotten as he murmured tender promises and moved his body for her pleasure, bringing her to the brink and then holding her there until she cried out in frustration and he granted her a swift release. Parker followed, her name choked between shudders, and she cradled him to her, sweaty and spent.
Through their silence she listened to his ragged breath becoming slower and more even, heard his galloping heartbeat return to its familiar resting cadence. She pressed her lips to his forehead, inhaling his natural scent slightly tinged with the musk of their lovemaking. Her weekend exhilaration was deflated in the face of their impending return to reality. The thought that all of it could be snatched away in an instant was too much to bear.
Parker rose and packed with focus, and though she'd protested he insisted that she take her time getting ready and let him do the work. She refrained from arguing that she was more than capable of packing her own bag and carrying it to the car. Instead she let him take care of it, impressed as ever by his masculine efficiency and secretly relieved that she was able to rest when she tasted the metallic tang of her morning nausea. Watching him pack was a pleasure she tried to enjoy, but between the mild queasiness and her unease she was unable to fully appreciate all his flexing and bending and lifting.
Now, speeding back through the desert, Charmaine struggled to form words for her worries. Parker looked at her so sweetly that she wanted nothing more than to tell him to turn the car around and drive back to where things made sense, where all that mattered was their sacred love. She wanted to lose herself in his sea glass gaze and pine scent and keep him close and safe. As a new bride, she was supposed be happier than she'd ever been in her life, but she couldn't keep sneaky fingers of dread from creeping along her spine.
Their legal marriage changed very little for them, practically speaking. The Vella and Kreuger packs were still feuding. The Council had yet to rule on their status as official Mates. Their unborn child—the son both Dominic and Parker had prophesied—was still a secret. Parker's father was still dying of cancer. And her brother had given her an ultimatum that threatened to shatter her entire existence as she knew it:
Either say goodbye to this company and this family, or say goodbye to Parker Kreuger.
All this and they hadn't even lived together yet.
"You're my wife now. Does this mean you'll finally move in with me?" Parker teased, closing his hand over Charmaine's so that he cupped her rings against his palm. She'd been twisting her hair and staring out at the desert, willing the tears to keep from welling up, when his voice cut through her reverie.
Let's not go back to reality just yet
, she begged the universe.
It's too soon. We haven't had enough time.
"Yes," she replied softly. "I'll move in today, after work. It's the one thing we can actually do."
"Baby, I promised, and I meant it." He pulled her hand to his lips and planted a tender kiss on her knuckles. "I'm going to take care of everything."
"I know that's the plan," she said carefully, withdrawing her hand and avoiding his eyes.
"That makes it sound like I'm a little kid who wants to be an astronaut when I grow up." He frowned. "It's more than a plan, it's already set in motion. I've taken all the right steps. I've followed every rule. Now we just wait. A little bit of patience and we'll be on the other side of this."
"That's what worries me. I've been thinking about this all night. Yes,
took the right steps.
followed the rules. But you're counting on everyone to do the same." She paused, unsure of how to proceed.
"Say what's on your mind," he urged levelly.
"I don't trust Christopher, and I don't trust Jamison, either. I worry about them taking advantage of you when Dominic..." She couldn't finish that sentence. Dominic Kreuger had become as dear to her as if he were her own flesh and blood. Though he'd been dying when she met him, she still couldn't fathom life without him.
Parker looked at her, the shadow of a smile playing on his lips. "My wife thinking strategically, like a true Alpha. I like it. But you don't have anything to worry about. Everything is under control."
His voice was too light. She knew what a sore subject his father's health was, and it hadn't been easy for her to voice those concerns, but she had to make him understand that she could be more to him. She was an Alpha's daughter, just as he said when they were making their future plans. Despite the fact that her father had made it a point to exclude her from pack business, she'd paid attention and kept her ears open. She knew how the politics worked; after all, she'd had pack aspirations of her own before she collided with her fate in that hospital hallway. She wouldn't be brushed off like some overly concerned housewife who doesn't understand the dynamics at her husband's office but still tries to insert her nose in his affairs at work.
She took a deep breath and pressed on. "You are the most honorable person I know. I love that about you, and it's what gives you credibility in your pack and even in mine. But—"
Parker gripped the steering wheel as if steeling himself against some horrible news. His face was stony. "Please don't."
"You said something complimentary and then followed it with 'but.' It's all downhill from there, so don't say anything else."
"You have no idea what I was going to say!" she cried in frustration.
"I know enough," he retorted stubbornly. "I know it started with 'but.'"
Charmaine stared at him, his green eyes focusing on the road, his unshaven jaw clenching in determination. The cords in his tanned arms stood out as he gripped the steering wheel. He was absolutely beautiful and absolutely infuriating.
, she thought.
Just like Pop. I've married my father.
Unbidden, memories of some of her meltdowns came back to her, and she cringed to think of how patient Parker had been with her then, especially when she was so impatient with him now.
She sighed. "Let me try again. I know you're more than capable of looking after me and our son. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I want to be—" she took a deep breath and corrected herself, "
to be included. Don't shut me out or discount my concerns because you don't want to worry me about things." She kept her voice soft, but she hoped Parker could hear the firmness just underneath. "Please don't be like my father, because I'm not your daughter. I'm your
. I'm your
, whether our packs accept that or not. And I'm going to stand by your side, so don't you dare push me away from where I belong." Her heart raced with the force of her speech, and she silently prayed for Parker's understanding.
He was quiet for a moment, his face still a bit red. Finally he nodded. "You're right. I
try to protect you, because I love you and that's my job. And when you challenge that, it makes me... it's..." He struggled to find the words. "It means I can't do my job," he finally blurted.
you," she promised. "I just want to be part of things that concern me. Please don't shut me out."
Parker was silent again. He took a deep breath. "But I have to protect you," he argued. "Especially now." His hand crept over her belly and rested there.
She folded her hands over his and held them tightly. "Protect me like I'm a woman, then, not a child. Keep me safe, but don't keep me in the dark."
"Okay," he agreed after another long silence, his jaw stubborn but his voice loving and agreeable. "I suppose I can handle that."
Charmaine was bare-handed when she strode through the doors of Gillis-Vella, Inc. Though they were only symbols, and she was Parker's wife whether she wore her rings or not, it was a struggle to leave them behind when she went to work. Parker gently reminded her that there was no way she could take the risk, but when they clinked into the velvet cradle of her jewelry box, she felt an echoing loss in the pit of her stomach. Now she rubbed at the empty spot on her finger, missing their familiar weight.
She spent her entire morning at the office going through the motions. She checked her e-mails and listened to her voice mails. She cleaned her keyboard and rearranged her pens. She watered her plants and placed a couple orders, but she just couldn't find the familiar rhythm of the workday.
Meanwhile, Christopher lorded over the place as if he'd built it up himself, making no mention of his father's passing to any of the employees. The discomfort was palpable. Staff slipped past each other in reverent silence, but Christopher acted as if it was business as usual despite the loss of the man behind it all. He made his presence known in every corner of the company and seemed oblivious to the hush that had fallen over the place.
Only Scottie kept Charmaine from immediately packing her things and walking out. He had come to check on her that morning, his face solemn and a hot cup of coffee in his hand.
"Oh, you read my mind!" She reached for it gratefully, planting a kiss on his cheek, before pausing. "Decaf, though?"
He nodded. "Of course."
"Sure. How you holding up?"
She sighed and shook her head. "I don't know, I just—" She was interrupted by a knock on her door. Christopher popped his head in.
"Good morning, Scott!" He dazzled them both with a smile and then turned to Charmaine. "I'd like a word with you when you're done here." Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared as quickly as he'd popped up.
She was never so grateful for Scottie hanging out in her office.
"What the hell was that all about?" Scottie frowned.
"I have no idea." Charmaine said. Her brother's sudden cheeriness was downright creepy. No doubt he had come to castigate her about Parker again, maybe even to make more threats. "I'm not going right now, though."
For about the tenth time that day she wondered what she was even doing there. When it came right down to it, she had loved the company because of her father. It was his dedication to the company that had inspired her, his work ethic and brilliance in dealing with his staff and customers that had made such an impression on her as a young girl and stayed with her all these years. It hadn't been so much about being good at the job or believing in the products they sold. The bond she'd shared with César because of this work was what mattered.
With the company in Christopher's hands, she knew things would never return to the way they were, and the realization made staying there an unbearable proposition.
, what's really here for me now that Pop's gone?
Christopher ambushed her coming from the ladies' room shortly after lunch and steered her into his office. "You've been avoiding me," he accused her as he closed the door behind them, his grip on her arm telling a different story than the grin on his face. She wrenched free and stood warily in the middle of the room while Christopher strolled to his desk and took a seat as if they were there to discuss the weather.
"So," he began, his mouth still curved into a soulless smile. "Have you given any thought to our conversation the other day?"
"Our conversation?" she flared. "You mean your threat?"
He smoothed his tie and leaned back in his chair. "You had a choice to make," he reminded her, as if she were a small child who'd forgotten to pick up her toys.
She set her jaw and looked away.
"I'll take your silence to mean you've done nothing, even though I was very generous by not giving you a deadline to take care of this matter."
She stared at him incredulously. "A
"I took the liberty of reading your personnel file. Our father noted that you seem to work best under pressure, so perhaps you require some concrete guidelines in order to take it a bit more seriously. I certainly have no problem with providing my only sister the opportunity to handle her own dirty work before I step in, so how about we make your decision due to me by Monday? That will give you some time to tie up loose ends."
"This is not a work project, Christopher." Rage gave way to pain and her eyes filled with tears. "This is my
. I am your only sister, just like you said. Don't you care at all about my happiness?"
"My duty as Alpha is not to worry about your feelings, it's to ensure the future of this pack. I can't have my own people violating our laws and expecting me to just look the other way, even if they're members of my own family.
when they are members of my own family."
She shook her head. "I'll give you my answer now, then. I won't do it. I won't let him go."
"Then you can leave this office right now. Hand me your keys and take only the personal items you can carry with you in one trip." His cold gaze dared her to challenge him. He was still smiling, but just barely.
"You don't really mean it."
"I've never been more serious about anything in my life."
Part of her was still certain he was bluffing, even as her shaking hands drew her key ring out of her pocket.
I'm his sister. No, screw that, I'm the top sales person! He needs me!
"I'll have Scottie clear out your office and contact you with your things. As for you. I'd advise you to make the most of that visit, because it will be the last time you see him."
Her hands stilled on her key ring. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe you don't remember what I said previously. Your answer means you're
—with this job, this family, and this pack. Your answer means you are no longer at liberty of contacting any of us, including Scottie or our mother. I'm sorry you didn't take me more seriously, Charmaine, but don't ever say I didn't give you warning. And remember whose choice this was."
She rose, trembling, and he stretched out his hand for her keys.
"I hope he's worth it," he called after her as she dropped the keys in his palm without touching him and walked, stunned, out of his office.
Packing up her desk at Vella would have been hard enough without Scottie standing in her doorway with his arms folded across his chest like a sullen teenager. His eyes never left her as she stuffed her tote bag. "I hope you know what you're doing," he grumbled.
"It's fine. I'm fine." She kicked a drawer shut with a satisfying slam.
"I can't believe he's doing this to you. He's ruining your life, Charmaine."
"Told you. I've never done anything to my brother to cause him to treat me this way."
"I meant Parker."
The words sliced through her. She barely felt the pain until she stood cleaved and bleeding, staring at Scottie as if she'd never seen him before in her life. "I can't believe you would say that to me," she whispered as she turned away and continued packing.
"Look, Christopher may be an asshole, but he's the Alpha. He told you to stay away from Parker for a good reason."
"Oh?" She whirled on him. "What exactly is that 'good reason', Scottie?"
"Char, come on." His voice cracked. "If this is the last time we're going to see each other I don't want to spend it fighting."
"Don't say that!" Charmine cried. "This is
the last time!"
"I can't believe you'd walk away from everything—this company, your family, and me. All for him."
"You say it like I have a choice!" she sobbed. "I didn't
this! I didn't
him! But he's in me, Scottie. He's my
. And I can't turn my back on that. It's not a matter of just walking away!" Her eyes blurred, and when she felt Scottie's arms around her she collapsed against his solid warmth. "Don't be like Christopher," she begged. "Don't say those things. I don't know what I'll do without my family. Without you."
He stroked her hair and pressed his lips to the top of her head. "It's going to be okay. No matter what, I'm going to make sure nothing happens to you," he vowed. "I'll keep you safe."
"Scottie—" He had no idea what he was promising. He couldn't stand between two feuding packs just because he was still nursing his romantic childhood dream, some high school crush that he mistook for love. And it wasn't his responsibility to protect her. "You don't need to. Parker will protect me. And I'll protect myself."
He shook his head as if she was talking nonsense. "No, Char, I'm serious. You and—" he stopped himself and then lowered his voice, "
will be safe. I'll look out for you, no matter what happens. I won't ever stop protecting you, not as long as I live. That's a promise."
But his plea was interrupted by Christopher's voice at the door. "Done yet?" he demanded, and Charmaine stepped away from Scottie and grabbed an armful of belongings.
"I don't need your protection," she said, looking him in the eye. "But your support would have been nice."