“Natalie, don’t you think it’s time to come home and have some lunch?” My father’s voice inside my head made me jump.
“No, I don’t,” I replied, my tone clipped. Before he could answer me, I put up a mental block, and then I waited a moment. As the Alpha of our pack, he could easily break down my block if he wanted to.
I sighed, shifted my weight on the large boulder I was perched on, and refocused my attention on the creek. I watched the fast-moving water as it babbled and burbled and splashed over limestone rocks, while pebbles whisked about in the under wash like pieces of glitter. Sunlight filtered through the trees overhead, as their leaves swayed and rustled in the breeze, and dappled shadows were cast all around me. I breathed in deep and closed my eyes, leaning back on my hands. The air smelled of wet earth and of cedar, and it calmed me.
My best friend Kate and I had discovered this creek when we were just kids, elementary-aged, and we’d come to visit frequently. We would trek out here almost every day after school, with our backpacks full of snacks and stuff to make friendship bracelets with. We’d pick a spot on the rocky bank, get comfortable, and make countless bracelets while we gossiped and munched on our Cheetos. We would stay till our parents mind-linked us to come home.
We spent our summers splashing in the water and skipping rocks in the current. We’d spend our winters, when the creek froze over, competing to see who could find the largest, thickest icicle in the fringe of the forest flanking the snowy bank.
When we got older and started dating, we’d both bring our boyfriends to the creek, coordinating with each other who would get the creek which day. Kate lost her virginity on the bank to a boy named Aaron. When they broke up, Kate stopped visiting. She said it was, “too painful”, and I sympathized, but that was precisely why I had never had sex with anyone here. Eventually, though, I stopped visiting, too.
I found myself sitting on this exact boulder, sobbing uncontrollably with my knees pulled up to my chest and my face hidden in my hands, on the night of my 19th birthday. It was the first time I’d come in a few years. It was the only place I could think to go where I knew, without a shred of doubt, I’d be alone.
It had been four weeks to the day since my birthday, and I had come to the creek every morning. I’d stay till I felt like my stomach was eating itself, I was so hungry, or till my Wolf grew restless from sitting one place for so long, or till I was needed by someone back in town for a reason I deemed good enough to return. Whichever came first.
My parents were beginning to tire of my behavior. I was withdrawn and moody, and it wasn’t like me. Dad told me he missed his outspoken, brave, little spitfire. He asked me where she went. I told him I wish I knew. My little brother Graham tried to talk to me, too, but I wasn’t interested, and Kate offered her support, of course. I knew they all meant well, but none of them could ever understand the pain I felt. I was mourning. I was lamenting over the loss of a lifetime of happiness and love. My Mate had rejected me. The other half of my soul didn’t want me; he hated me.
I was sick of the pitying glances and hushed whispers from pack members when I walked by. I was sick of being too afraid to stray far from the packhouse for fear of running into my cruel, bitter ex-Mate. I wanted to do something crazy and impulsive and stupid. I needed to grieve properly but I didn’t know how. I was dwelling. I was obsessing. I had heard of wolves in my position abandoning their packs to become rogues, but that was a different kind of stupid. I was alive and well, just emotionally hurting, so I figured that the Moon Goddess must still have a purpose for me. The initial physical pain, the ripping and tearing and searing pain of the Mate-bond breaking, hadn’t killed me. I doubted my purpose was to become a rogue, especially not as the daughter of a well-respected Alpha.
Just last week, I accompanied my father to a small event held in a neighboring pack’s territory. His Beta, Kate’s father Andrew, and two of our warriors joined us as well. I was good in social situations. I made my dad look good. I enjoyed getting out and pretending, for just one night, that everything was okay.
I was standing near the bar with one of our two warriors, Christopher, chatting and sipping on a Bloody Mary. Out of nowhere, he went silent, his body went stiff as a board, and his eyes began to dart frantically around the venue. His apology for his distractedness was half-assed, but I didn’t mind. I regarded him knowingly; I recognized his strange behavior.
Sure enough, not a moment later, as he stared at someone behind me with a suspicious look on his face, his mouth suddenly fell open and his eyes flashed silver—I hated that silver sheen. It was the Mate-bond being recognized for the first time, and it faded rather quickly. I’d never forget how Callum recoiled in disgust at the sight of me, his eyes that same silver color that I had longed to see for years.
I stepped out of Christopher’s way, retreating to an empty table with my back to the newfound lovers.
Hours later, before I retired to my guest room at the packhouse, I spotted Christopher all nuzzled up to his Mate on a bench. She was giggling and had her hand on his chest while he kissed her neck. The sight made me sick to my stomach.
“Nat.” Kate’s voice came through the mind-link, interrupting my thoughts. “Your dad wanted me to try to get you back to the packhouse, but don’t block me out just yet.”
I didn’t answer her, but I also didn’t block her out. I stayed silent, waiting.
“He’s called everyone attending the meeting with the Black Summit pack to the conference room,” she continued.
My brow furrowed and I frowned. “I’ve never been allowed to attend those meetings.”
“Your dad says he wants you at this one. Said he expects you to be in the conference room in half an hour, so if you’re at the creek, you better get going.”
I ended the mind-link without another word, and jumped to my feet. I jogged into the dense forest behind me and headed west.
Dad had let me go with him to every single one of his meetings since I’d started training as a warrior at 16. Our head trainer, Finnian, had always been impressed with my endurance and my agility, and he was sure to tell Dad as much. I had quickly become one of the pack’s top warriors. Dad proudly kept me by his side at all meetings. I would always stand to his left, and Andrew and Finnian would stand to his right He would introduce them first, and then he would say, with a broad smile on his face, “And this is my daughter, Natalie. She’s one of our best soldiers. Be careful not to piss her off.”
The Black Summit pack was different, though. I had always begged Dad to let me come to these meetings. I wanted to immerse myself in pack business as much as possible but Dad insisted that Black Summit was dangerous.
Black Summit’s Alpha had stepped up and assumed his title about three years ago, after his father, Alpha Damon, was brutally killed in battle. I didn’t even know Alpha Damon had a son—just two daughters—till the news broke that he had taken over.
Alpha Damon was said to be vicious and cruel. He killed just for the thrill of it. He didn’t have a kind, compassionate, or caring bone in his body. There had been many times that Alpha Damon had killed members of my own pack without hesitation. His son, Alpha Reid, had earned himself the same reputation within mere months of his Alpha ceremony, and nowadays he was feared much more deeply than Alpha Damon ever was. He was rumored to be a grotesque-looking, war-ravaged beast.
My pack, the White Mountain pack, had plenty of land, of course. It was plenty, but it wasn’t nearly as much as it used to be. We were nestled in the Mahoosuc Range in Maine, near the highest peak of Baldpate Mountain. The Black Summit pack was based in Vermont, hidden away somewhere in Mount Mansfield. They were the largest werewolf pack in the continent. Their territory included the entire state of Vermont, stretched across New Hampshire, and they had forcefully taken a huge chunk of our land, too.
Through fear-instilling tactics, threats, and relentless bullying, they had gained possession of nearly half of the land that originally belonged to us. The biannual “meetings” with the Black Summit pack were really negotiations, according to my mother, in which my father tried to prevent them from taking over any more of our territory.
I wondered why they hadn’t just attacked us yet. I imagined that they could absorb us easily, considering the fact that they practically owned us already. My father said Alpha Reid knew better. He was ruthless, but he was also fiercely intelligent. He knew it wouldn’t be worth the risk to challenge us, no matter how small he perceived that risk to be. We were clinging to what little land we had left and we weren’t going to give it up without a hard fight—my dad was strong and stubborn, and he knew werewolf law like the back of his hand.
That didn’t stop Alpha Reid from establishing his dominance. He did have Dad by the balls. He’d killed about a dozen of my pack members and cited “territory infringement”. My father’s closest friend, Edward, was among that dozen, and my heart clenched at the thought of him. Edward was found about a quarter of a mile into Black Summit’s territory, walking along a stream that previously belonged to us, and they tossed his dead body back over territory lines in a crumpled, bloody heap, like garbage.
Not to mention an entirely unrelated incident where one of ours showed disrespect to Alpha Reid during a meeting. He was a rebellious young wolf named Colin, and I didn’t know all the details. Finnian did tell me, however, that Alpha Reid snapped his neck like a toothpick, knowing full well that my dad wouldn’t do anything to stop him.
Now, as I pushed through thick brush, ducked under low branches, and hopped over fallen trees decaying on the forest floor, I wondered why Dad had suddenly decided to bring me along.
I just hoped it wasn’t out of pity.
I emerged from the woods and followed the backroads to the packhouse. When I arrived, I hurried down hallways and through the common areas, politely smiling at Omegas mulling about, and I entered the conference room in the nick of time. Dad was sitting at the head of the table, with Andrew and Finnian to his right, and with an empty seat directly to his left, presumably for me. There were more warriors present than there usually were for these things. This time, there were seven of them—there were usually only two or three.
“Thank you for joining us, Natalie,” Dad said as I sat down next to him.
I said nothing.
“As you all know,” he began, addressing his men, “Natalie will be coming with us to our meeting with the Black Summit pack on Wednesday.”
“Why?” I interrupted.
He looked at me, and responded simply, “You’re ready.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and retorted, “That’s it? Nothing more?”
Dad narrowed his brown eyes at me and asked, “Would you rather stay home?”
I held his gaze steadily and again, I said nothing. His countenance hardened and his jaw clenched at my attitude.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “Natalie will be coming with us. We’ll plan to leave on Wednesday morning, mid-morning, and we will arrive in the clearing in the evening. We’ll stop to hunt and rest on the way there, of course.”
“And the topic of discussion is…” Finnian asked, trailing off.
“The usual,” Dad finished for him.
My interested piqued. “What’s the usual?” I asked.
“Alpha Reid wants more land, and we’re going to try to convince him to look elsewhere,” Andrew explained.
So my mother wasn’t just gossiping. These meetings really were negotiations.
“Is there anything I should know about the Black Summit pack before I meet them? Any advice?” I asked carefully, speaking to no one in particular. I looked around the room, and each of the men seemed to be pondering a response.
“Eye contact,” a warrior named Alec began. “Be careful about eye contact. I looked Alpha Reid in the eyes once. One is blue and one is brown. In them, I saw nothing but rage. I’ll never forget it. He asked what the fuck I was looking at, and it took everything in me not to turn around and run the other way.”
My eyebrows rose in surprise. Not quite the advice I was expecting.
“Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to,” another warrior, Oliver, added. “Just leave it to the Alphas. Alpha Reid doesn’t like interruptions. Everything is considered disrespect. Everything is a challenge.”
“Stand your ground, though,” Finnian chimed in, “They will likely have more wolves in attendance than we will, and I believe it’s a scare tactic. They know that we know they could wipe us out with their numbers alone, and they always show up with just a few more wolves than we have, as if to remind us. Don’t show them fear.”
“Why don’t we just bring more wolves?” I asked.
“We can’t take too many with us,” Dad explained, “because it would leave our pack unprotected. With you, we’ll have 11, and that’s more than enough.” He glanced around at the men sitting around the table, regarding each of them with solemnity. “You are all to meet Natalie and I here at the packhouse on Wednesday morning at about 10. Come fed, well-rested, and ready to run. We’ll be waiting in the foyer. Any more questions?”
All eyes were on me. I said nothing.
“Great. You all are dismissed.”
And that was that. Everyone stood up, and began to filter out of the conference room. A few warriors came to shake my father’s hand, and a few told me that they were excited to have me tag along. I stayed by Dad’s side dutifully until the last warrior had taken his leave, and so had Andrew and Finnian.
I asked, “What’s the real reason I’m allowed to come with you this time?”
“I already told you,” he replied. “You’re ready. I bring you to every other meeting I go to. You’re involved in all pack business. The only thing I’ve ever sheltered you from is the Black Summit pack, but I’m still holding onto the hope that you’ll become our Alpha someday. Maybe someday soon. Ought to rip this Band-Aid off now.”
I snorted, and he rolled his eyes. He started for the door, and I followed.
“I’m going to start your Alpha training,” Dad mused. “Maybe within the next few weeks.”
“Dad, I’ve told you so many times,” I protested, “I don’t want to be the Alpha. Especially now. I don’t have a Mate. Let Graham do it when he’s of age.”
We exited the conference room and I continued to follow him. He turned left and started down the hallway towards the kitchen. “Just light prep—nothing super intensive, totally noncommittal. Think of it as a trial run. You would be a fantastic Alpha, Natalie.”
“I appreciate that, Dad. I really do. But I—”
“Just humor me.”
I eyeballed him warily. “I guess so.”
“If you really do decide you don’t want the title, I’m sure Graham would hop on it.”
“He’d make a fine Alpha, too.”
We entered the kitchen, and requested that the kitchen Omegas prepare us a late lunch. While we waited, we made light small talk. No more talk about the Black Summit pack or about me becoming the Alpha or even about my rejection, which was a pleasant surprise, as it seemed to be a hot topic these days. Soon, we were served chicken Alfredo pasta with broccoli. Our conversation fizzled out, and as soon as he was finished eating, Dad left me alone.
I chewed the last mouthful of my food thoughtfully, focusing on a groove in the wooden table in front of me. I wanted to see Kate.