To whet your appetite a bit, here's an excerpt:
The restaurant was dark. Candles in glass jars flickered on the tables next to bud vases full of wild flowers. A massive oak bar ran the width of the room and a huge fieldstone fireplace sat cold and empty on the eastern wall.
Two tables were shoved together in front of the fireplace. Faith’s blond hair gleamed in the candlelight. She and her bond mate, Scott, sat backs to the fireplace, with the younger generation of the pack ranged around them.
Those of my parents’ age and above weren't there. I couldn't imagine Paul deigning to eat at an establishment that served bikers. A cold spurt of relief swept over me. I’d have to confront him eventually, but it wouldn’t be tonight.
I’d grown up with six of the seven of the people gathered at the tables. The oldest, Tony, was fourteen years my senior but, of course, he could pass for anywhere from late twenties to mid thirties. He’d been Alpha when I’d left the pack, and he’d rescued my wolf the first night she’d shifted and had been scared of her own heartbeat. I’d crushed hard on Tony at one point in my life.
The youngest, Alan, was eleven years my junior. I knew it was him only because he looked so much like his father. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been nine or ten, a little brat of epic proportions. I’d been his primary babysitter and he’d driven me frigging crazy most of the time, but I had a soft spot for him anyway.
When he saw me, he leaped out of his chair and rushed me so he could envelop me in a huge bear hug.
“Stanzie Newcastle, my favorite sexy babysitter,” he growled then hugged me again.
“Alan Perrault, if you don’t cut the crap I’m going to kick your ass,” I warned which only made him laugh.
“I couldn't believe my freaking ears when Faith told us you were here.” He wrapped a strong arm around my shoulders and steered me to the table.
At ten, he’d been a skinny little kid with sly blue eyes who could run like hell when he was in trouble, and that had been nearly all the damn time. Now he was taller than me by at least five inches and, while still on the thin side, had muscles in all the right places. His innocent choirboy face had morphed into sensuality. He was a damn good-looking guy.
He nuzzled my ear with his nose. “Stanzie, don’t trust anyone except for me and Faith, okay?”
I gave him a sharp look but didn't say anything. I found it extremely interesting that he hadn't included Scott, Faith’s bond mate, in his short list of exemptions.
Pack structure centered on the Alpha breeding pair. Unless there were twins or triplets, generally the children in a pack were separated by five or more years. This made it a lonely time for only children.
My closet pack mates in age had been Mark Drake, who was five years older, and my cousin, Faith, who was five years younger.
Mark’s cousin, Tony, the man who had been Alpha when I had left the pack, was bonded to Susan Driscoll, who at forty, was only eight years older than me but we had never had much use for each other. She’d been far closer in age to Rachel Costello, and they had been best friends forever.
Tonight they sat next to each other and I assumed things had not changed between them.
Proximity had led many pack children to bond with each other when they grew up. Mayflower was no exception. Mark, between me and Rachel in age, could have gone either way with us, but when he’d hit puberty I had definitely not been interested in boys. Rachel, five years older than Mark, had been a much more receptive target. Mark was more like a brother to me. Big and burly with dark brown hair and a mustache he could have blended with the bikers outside in a heartbeat.
Rachel’s hair was blue black and styled in short layers that framed her face becomingly. Not conventionally beautiful and far too strong-featured to be considered pretty, she stood six feet tall and was built like an Amazon. She and Mark were focused on fitness. They spent hours in their home gym and it showed.
Susan, by contrast, was small and plump with light-brown hair and a
China doll lovely face. It was a mistake to be fooled by her demure exterior. She had a razor-sharp tongue that could cut anyone down to size in fifteen seconds or less. The only person in the whole world who could intimidate her was my father. My status as an Advisor and so-called member of Mac Tire would probably cut zero ice with her.
She gave me a frankly suspicious look as Alan and I approached the table. “It’s crap that you’re here to visit, Stanzie. You’re wearing your Advisor cap, aren't you?”
Her bond mate, Tony, winced. Rachel grinned, clearly entertained, her dark eyes weren't hostile, they were curious.
“Could be,” I said with my most enigmatic smile. Alan pulled out the chair beside him and I sat. Faith, seated almost directly across from me, sipped ice water and played with her appetizer of split pea soup. She avoided eye contact.
Susan’s eyebrows elevated. “Since when did you get all dark and mysterious? Stanzie Newcastle, you’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve and blurt out everything you think the minute the thought hits your brain.”
“I’m not twenty years old anymore.” I unspooled my cutlery from my napkin and arranged it on the water-marked wooden table.
“Is it true your wolf tore out Nate Carver’s throat?” Mark leaned forward, fascinated.
The table went dead silent. The only one who moved was me as I spread my napkin on my lap. My seat was close to an open window that overlooked a tobacco field in back of the tavern. The steady song of crickets was loud in my ears while the scent of growing tobacco and weeds stung my nose. I wished I had a drink.
“It was either that or be raped and tortured to death,” I said. On my left, Alan shuddered. On my right, Tony’s face hardened.
Mark sat on Tony’s other side and he leaned around him so he could meet my gaze.
“I never liked that sorry sonofabitch in the first place,” he said and raised his beer. “Good job, Stanzie.”
The others raised their drinks in a strangely gleeful toast that made me uncomfortable.
It didn't seem right somehow to celebrate the fact that my wolf had broken Pack law and gotten away with it. Been commended for it.
“I have to live with Nate’s blood on my soul for the rest of my life,” I said.
“You’re a hero.” Was that mockery in Susan’s voice or admiration? “Everyone says so.”
I shook my head.
“I know. It seems a little weird that you, Stanzie, would grow up and become responsible instead of running away from your problems or ignoring them as usual, but maybe being an Advisor has been good for your character development,” Susan mused. She contemplated the inside of her beer bottle before she swallowed the rest of the contents.
“Can we lay off her, Susan? Jesus.” Faith’s mouth tightened.
“You always worshiped the ground Stanzie walked on, but you were younger and didn't know any better. The rest of us weren't so blind, Faith.” Susan patted Faith’s hand and Faith jerked away from her. Before her ice water could tip over, Tony grabbed for it and managed to save it.
“I didn't ask Stanzie here so you could rip her to shreds.”
“Why did you ask her here? Not that family reunion crap again, Faith. Please. She walked away almost fifteen years ago. We’re not her family anymore.”
“Paul renounced her as his daughter.” Rachel’s dark eyes turned judgmental as she looked at me.
“That’s just so much melodramatic bullshit,” argued Alan. A lock of wheat-colored hair fell into his blue eyes and he brushed it back with impatient fingers. “You can’t renounce your own children, it’s ridiculous.”
“Stanzie walked away from Mayflower. She was fifteenth generation of the founding pack family. Paul waited twelve years to do it and it was only after Stanzie threw away her chance to come back after Grey and Elena died that pushed him to it.” Rachel transferred her intense dark gaze to Alan. The breeze from the open window stirred the layers of her jet black hair.
My eyes bugged and I nearly expected to see them bounce on the table and roll into Rachel’s sanctimonious lap.
“Come back to Mayflower?” I shook my head. “That was an option? Paul knew damn well I’ve been in
Boston for nearly three years and not once did he deign to visit or even return my phone calls.”
“You called?” Rachel was more surprised than she should have been since she knew Paul.
“Every month, regular as clockwork.”
Rachel considered my answer. One thing about Rachel--she didn't rush into judgment. However, once her mind was made up, it was nearly impossible to get her to see the other side. Convincing a stone statue to dance would have been an easier task.
“He made it sound like he offered to take you back and you all but spit in his face. Wes still wanted to bond with you even after the way you treated him.” She wasn't convinced I told the truth, but the slight doubt in her voice let me know there was still a chance she’d see my side and even believe it.
I couldn't repress a shudder of revulsion. Not Wes Hanover again. Rachel’s sharp eyes missed nothing.
“Well, who else did you expect to bond with, Stanzie? Susan and Tony? You always had a thing for Tony, didn't you?”
A hot blush stole across my cheeks and I damned the fact I’d put up my hair and had nothing to hide behind.
“Well, you have to admit he’s a hell of a lot closer to my age than Wes,” I argued, although I probably should have kept my stupid mouth shut.
“A snowball has a better chance in hell than you do of bonding with us.” Susan’s mouth stretched into a sardonic grin, but her eyes sparked with jealousy. I’m sure if she’d known her jealousy had shown, she would have gouged out her eyes with her salad fork.
“I’ll bond with you,” Alan offered gallantly.
Susan snorted. “You’re not old enough to bond with anyone. Why would Stanzie want a baby like you, Alan?”
Alan’s blue eyes narrowed. “ I've been old enough to bond for two years. Stanzie bonded with Grey at twenty. I’m twenty-one.”
“Stanzie’s almost thirty-three. Talk about an age difference.”
“Wes Hanover is almost sixty-three. You should shut up about age difference, Susan.” Alan gripped his beer bottle so tightly I feared for its continued existence.
“Bonding with someone because you have the hots for them is hardly a basis for sustainability, Alan.” Susan’s smile was condescending to the max. “At your age you think with your dick, not your brain. Just because Stanzie starred in your first wet dream when you were twelve doesn't mean you have to bond with her. She’s here for a visit. You should sleep with her, get her out of your system.”
“You’re just jealous because you’re nobody’s wet dream material,” Alan muttered and Susan threw her ice water at his face. Not only was he doused, but I was as well.
With a curse, Alan shoved back his chair and stalked to the back of the tavern to the rest rooms.
Ice water trickled down my cleavage. This was typical Susan behavior. I remembered it well. Dramatic bitch. I refused to give her the satisfaction of any sort of surprised reaction, but damn that water was cold.
“I have a bond mate. Can we stop this ridiculous discussion?” I asked. Tony handed me his napkin and I dabbed at my neck and chest. I wasn't precisely a liar. I did have a bond mate--at least for a couple more months.
“Where the hell is he?” Mark leaned around Tony again and I busied myself with the napkin to buy some time.
Dublin.” The longer I stalled, the more curious they’d become. “My pack is Irish, remember?” Maybe they’d think Murphy was on pack business.
“What the hell possessed you to bond with someone Irish, for Christ’s sake?” Mark’s expression was baffled. “You’re American.”
“I met him at the Great Gathering in
France. Not everyone at the Great Gathering is American, Mark.”
“But Irish?” Mark shook his head.
“At least he speaks English,” Tony remarked. Susan’s eyes narrowed.
“Stanzie’s always had a thing for foreigners. Remember that German boy?” Rachel said. “Paul nipped that in the bud, didn't he?”
Rudi’s face flashed before my eyes. I remembered the feel of my hand on his taut stomach, the press of his mouth against mine. The way he’d said my name, as if I’d had the power to save him, just before he died.
“Whatever happened to him?” Mark asked and I stared at him in shock before I remembered Mayflower members never went to Great Gatherings anymore.
“He’s dead,” I said, and more deafening silence descended upon the table.
“We’d know all this if we went to Great Gatherings and Regionals.” Faith pushed her cup of soup aside.
“We go to Regionals,” Susan’s smile was nasty. “At least you do, dear.”
Resentment flared in Faith’s brown eyes. “Three years ago. If I hadn't I never would have met Scott.” This was an old argument, I could tell by everyone’s faces and body language.
Admiration warred with anger inside me. I was proud of Faith for defying the pack so she could attend a Regional, but angry that she’d had to do that. Everyone had a right to attend Regionals and Great Gatherings. The only thing that ought to hold someone back was whether they could afford it.
Faith and Scott had been Alphas for only a brief few months. Perhaps she was so stuck in the previous mindset of the pack she forgot she could now set policy. She didn’t have to carry her resentment around like a smoldering torch any longer because she could do what she wanted and, even better, encourage the others to follow in her footsteps.
Just then the waitress appeared with a platter of food--including my fried clams and French fries. When she took drink refills I ordered a Stella Artois for me and another Bud for Alan.
“What’s wrong with Budweiser?” Mark asked as he leaned around Tony again. I almost wished they would trade seats. Tony had barely looked in my direction the entire time I’d been there. That probably was so Susan wouldn't go off on him.
“Are you going to give me shit about the beer I drink?” I rolled my eyes and Mark grinned at me. I remembered how we’d always squabbled like brother and sister.
“If you drink that foreign shit, yeah.”
“Oh, jeez, all right fine.” I changed my order to a Sam Adams and Mark gave me the thumbs up.
Alan slunk back into his chair. His hair was damp from the ice water and his blue t-shirt had wet patches but his face was dry. He picked up his beer, discovered it was empty, and swore softly beneath his breath.
“I ordered you another one.” I gave him a friendly nudge with my elbow but he didn’t smile.
“If you’re going to be pissy all night long, do the rest of us a favor and go home,” suggested Susan as she dipped a chicken tender into a small bowl of honey barbecue sauce.
“Maybe I will.” Alan shoved back his chair and stalked out of the tavern.
“I’m not paying his tab.” Faith glared at Susan. “You do this almost every week, Susan, and I’m sick of paying for food he barely gets to touch before you drive him off.”
“He’s a big baby.” Susan popped the dripping chicken tender into her rosebud mouth and chewed with a blissful smile. “Samantha and Shane have spoiled him rotten. You and Todd haven’t helped. He’s twenty-one frigging years old and still hasn't initiated his wolf. I was bonded for a year at his age. If he can’t make nice with the grown-ups, he should stay home and play WoW on his computer.”
She gestured at me with another dripping chicken tender. “You’re the one who gave him the idea he could pick and choose who initiates his wolf, Stanzie. He and Faith both looked up to you back in the day, but you never thought it was important to teach by example.”
“Maybe I did,” I retorted, stung. I dipped one of my fried clams into the paper container of tartar sauce on my plate and tried to enjoy it. “Not that I want to get into this discussion right now, but what the hell is wrong with wanting to choose your own partner for initiation?”
Tony pushed back his chair and mumbled something about the men’s room before he beat a hasty retreat. It took every bit of self-control I had not to roll my eyes.
“You should be initiated by your pack, Stanzie.” Rachel answered before Susan could finish her second chicken tender. “There’s time enough to go out and choose partners for sex and fun or for bonding after you've been properly initiated. Look where rebellion got you.”
A slow, simmering anger sifted through my blood. The first person who said anything derogatory about my wolf was going to get a beer bottle upside their head. “If I’d been allowed to have the partner of my choice, it would have been someone in the pack.”
I stared hard at Susan. “My choice just wasn't the one everyone else wanted to make for me. If you’d let me do what I wanted, I wouldn't be getting this stupid lecture.”
“It’s not stupid,” Rachel protested as she waved her fork in the air for emphasis. “Who knows you better than your pack mates?”
“I’m not arguing that point,” I said with a sweet smile when I really wanted to snarl. I swirled another fried clam in the tartar sauce and wished like hell the waitress would hurry up with my goddamn beer. I was sure as hell going to claim Alan’s too while I was at it.
“Because of you Faith snuck away to the Regional in
New Hampshire and got initiated by Scott. Then she wanted to join his pack after they bonded. Luckily, he talked her out of that one. Can you imagine where she got an idea like that in her head?” Susan gave me a hard look. “She wouldn't let Wes initiate her. Wouldn't think of making a triad with Mark and Rachel. No, she had to go outside the pack for no reason.”
I expected Scott to say something at this point but he just sat there and placidly ate his cheeseburger. He hadn't said a goddamn word all night. Not even hello.
When I reached across the table for the ketchup bottle, I took a better, longer look at him. Dark hair, silver gray eyes, razor stubble across his cheeks, dressed like a New England jock--Boston Bruins t-shirt, bond pendant tucked beneath the collar, baseball cap--another Boston team, the Red Sox, and while I couldn't see them I knew he’d have on a pair of well-worn baggy jeans and equally beat-up sneakers. He was heartbreakingly gorgeous and I don’t know why that surprised me. Maybe because he made no effort to play it up.
He caught me scoping him out and gave me a frank appraisal in return. I’m not exactly ugly and I looked a lot like his bond mate, but not a flicker of appreciative lust flared in his eyes. He might have been looking at a not particularly interesting painting in an art gallery for all the interest he showed.
The waitress arrived with our beers and his face lit up. Beer he could appreciate--me, not so much. Tony was right behind the waitress and slid into his seat without a look toward me. He busied himself with his fried shrimp and kept his head down.
“Why is it so damn important to bond within the pack?” I asked. My voice was coated with an oil slick of bitterness which I’m sure they all heard. I hit the bottom of the ketchup bottle with the heel of my hand and used more force than strictly needed. Had to bleed off my aggression somehow.
“We are the oldest continuous pack in
New England. Third-oldest in all of America. We have a heritage to preserve and protect.” Rachel waved her fork again for emphasis, her dark eyes aglow with an almost religious fervor.
“Oh, God, not that old tired line.” I snorted and someone kicked me hard in the shin. I pretended not to notice but it fucking hurt. I’d probably bruise.
“Bonding outside the pack brings in new blood. It doesn't dilute. If anything, it makes the pack stronger and gives it an opportunity for growth.” I tucked my feet beneath my chair, out of reach.
“So speaks someone who couldn't wait to rush off to some no-name little pack in
Connecticut. Someone with purer and older blood than any of us sitting here at this goddamn table.” The blatant ire in Tony’s voice surprised me, although I guess it shouldn't have.
“You had your chance,” I said with soft malice and, when he shoved back his chair with explosive violence, I ducked because I expected a blow.
Instead he stalked for the door. He turned around halfway there and glared at Susan.
“You coming?” It sounded like an order she’d better not refuse.
“Nice, Stanzie. Some family reunion.” Mark watched Susan gather her purse and walk after Tony who, once he saw her push back her chair, started for the door again. “You come in here and start shooting off your big mouth when you don’t know a frigging thing about us anymore. What gives you the right to judge us? Are you so goddamn successful and superior? Did your choice to leave lead you to some fairy tale happy ending?”
“You know it didn't,” I snapped as the hot sting of tears burned my eyes.
Thank you, Mark, for pointing out just how shitty my life had ended up. Fuck you.
Mark got up and threw a wad of bills on the table. Rachel flung me a black look and got to her feet.
Mark got up and threw a wad of bills on the table. Rachel flung me a black look and got to her feet.
Scott drank his beer and watched them stomp out as a small grin curled the corners of his mouth.
Faith bit her lip and set down her forkful of broiled fish.
“Want me to go home now?” I took a gulp of my beer and contemplated my French fries. Was I or was I not hungry?
“Hell, no. You’re picking up what’s left of the tab. Cheapskate Tony and Susan didn’t leave a dime and neither did Alan.” Scott reached across the table and scooped up the money Mark had contemptuously thrown down.
“Seventeen bucks. Won’t even cover their goddamn bar tab.” He threw it back down with another grin.
“What is so funny?” Faith snapped at him. She pushed a lock of blond hair behind her ear and yanked on her silver hoop earring.
“You hate these Friday night dinners from hell. Why are you giving me shit about thinking it’s funny your cousin got under their skin instead of them getting under yours for a change?”
“Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs,” I remarked and Scott guffawed into his beer.
“I don’t like conflict,” Faith muttered. She stabbed at her fish with her fork but didn't eat any.
“Babe, if you don’t like conflict, you’re in the wrong pack and the wrong place. Alphas don’t get to cower in the corner at the first sign of tension. They get right up in the middle of it.” Scott’s eyes gleamed as if he relished the prospect of a good fight. He threw me a look. “They don’t call in the goddamn cavalry before the first shot’s been fired.”
“Scott, we've been through all this. Stanzie’s here and maybe she can help us. Why do you have to be like this?” Faith let her fork drop to her plate and pushed more hair behind her ears. Sweat beaded her forehead and I wondered if she felt sick.
Scott snorted. “Because we can handle this shit ourselves. You underestimate me, as usual. You always have. Thought I’d be an easy lay at the Regional, someone to initiate your wolf and get your ass out of Mayflower so you could join my pack. You saw how that went. So let’s cut the crap. Your cousin is not going to waltz in here and magically solve all your goddamn problems. The biggest problem you have is you don’t have the balls to be Alpha.”
Tears glimmered in Faith’s eyes then streaked down her cheeks. She swiped at them with the back of her hand. Scott gave her an impatient look devoid of sympathy. When he stared across the table at me, he shook his head.
“Yeah, I know. You think I’m an asshole. I read that loud and clear. What you don’t understand is that I have to listen to this crap day in and day out. I don’t even know why the fuck she agreed to be Alpha because she’s hated every second of it.”
“I wanted a baby. A baby.” Her voice was vicious but clogged with tears.
“And you’re going to have one.”
“There is something wrong with this pack,” Faith insisted in a low voice.
Scott’s face hardened. “There’s something wrong with your head. Jesus.” He got up and drained the last of his beer before he walked for the door.
“I’m sorry.” Faith groaned. More tears poured down her face. “I’ll call you tomorrow morning. We...we can have breakfast.”
She struggled with her purse and I held up a hand. “ I've got the tab. Go on before he leaves you behind. I didn't bring my car, so I can’t give you a ride home.”
She looked like she wanted to argue, but in the end didn't.
As I waited for the bill, I drank Alan’s beer. It tasted like shit.