THE ALPHA said, “We’re leaving.”
Ox stood near the doorway, smaller than I’d ever seen him. The skin under his eyes looked bruised.
This wasn’t going to go well. Ambushes never did.
“What?” Ox asked, eyes narrowing slightly. “When?”
He said, “You know I can’t leave yet,” and I touched the raven on my forearm, feeling the flutter of wings, the pulse of magic. It burned. “I have to meet with Mom’s lawyer in two weeks to go over her will. There’s the house and—”
“Not you, Ox,” Joe Bennett said, sitting behind his father’s desk. Thomas Bennett was nothing but ash.
I saw the moment the words sunk in. It was savage and brutal, the betrayal of a heart already broken.
“And not Mom. Or Mark.”
Carter and Kelly Bennett shifted uncomfortably, standing side by side near Joe. I wasn’t pack and hadn’t been for a long, long time, but even I could feel the low thrum of anger coursing through them. But not at Joe. Or Ox. Or anyone in this room. They had revenge in their blood, the need to rend with claw and fang. They were already lost to the idea of it.
But so was I. Ox just didn’t know it yet.
“So it’s you,” Ox said. “And Carter. Kelly.”
And now he did. Ox didn’t look at me. It might as well have been just the two of them in the room. “And Gordo. Where are you going?”
“To do what’s right.”
“Nothing about this is right,” Ox retorted. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“I’m telling you now,” he said, and oh, Joe. He had to know this wasn’t—
“Because that’s the right—where are you going?”
Once, when Ox was a boy, his piece-of-shit father had left for parts unknown without so much as a glance over his shoulder. It took weeks for Ox to pick up the phone and call me, but he did. He’d spoken slowly, but I’d heard the hurt in every word as he told me we’re not doing okay, that he was seeing letters from the bank talking about taking away the house he and his mom lived in down that old familiar dirt road.
Could I have a job? It’s just we need the money and I can’t let her lose the house. It’s all we have left. I’d do good, Gordo. I would do good work and I’d work for you forever. It was going to happen anyway and can we just do it now? Can we just do it now? I’m sorry. I just need to do it now because I have to be the man now.
That was the sound of a boy lost.
And here in front of me, the lost boy had returned. Oh sure, he was bigger now, but his mother was in the ground, his Alpha nothing but smoke in the stars, his mate, of all fucking things, digging his claws into his chest and twisting, twisting, twisting.
I did nothing to stop it. It was already too late. For all of us.
“Why?” Ox asked, voice cracking right down the middle.
Why, why, why.
Because Thomas was dead.
Because they’d taken from us.
Because they’d come to Green Creek, Richard Collins and his Omegas, their eyes violet in the dark, snarling as they came to face the fallen king.
I had done what I could.
It wasn’t enough.
There was a boy, this little boy not even eighteen years of age, bearing the weight of his father’s legacy, the monster from his childhood made flesh. His eyes burned red, and he knew only vengeance. It pulsed through his brothers in a circle that never ended, feeding each other’s anger. He was the boy prince turned furious king, and he’d needed my help.
Elizabeth Bennett was quiet, letting it happen in front of her. Ever the muted queen, an afghan around her shoulders, watching this goddamn tragedy play out. I couldn’t even be sure she was all there.
And Mark, he—
No. Not him. Not now.
The past was past was past.
They argued, baring their teeth and growling at each other. Back and forth, each cutting until the other bled out before us. I understood Ox. The fear of losing those you loved. Of a responsibility you never asked for. Of being told something you never wanted to hear.
I understood Joe. I didn’t want to, but I did.
We think it was your father, Gordo, Osmond whispered. We think Robert Livingstone found a path back to magic and broke the wards that held Richard Collins.
Yes. I thought I understood Joe most of all.
“You can’t divide the pack,” Ox said, and oh Jesus, he was begging. “Not now. Joe, you are the goddamn Alpha. They need you here. All of them. Together. Do you really think they’d agree to—”
“I already told them days ago,” Joe said. And then he flinched. “Shit.”
I closed my eyes.
THERE WAS this:
“That’s shit, Gordo.”
“And you’re going along with it.”
“Someone has to make sure he doesn’t kill himself.”
“And that someone is you. Because you’re pack.”
“I think so.”
But of course it wasn’t that it easy. It never was.
“You mean to kill. You’re okay with that?”
“Nothing about this is okay, Ox. But Joe’s right. We can’t let this happen to anyone else. Richard wanted Thomas, but how long before he goes after another pack just to become an Alpha? How long before he amasses another following, bigger than the one before? The trail is already growing cold. We have to finish this while we still can. This is revenge, pure and simple, but it’s coming from the right place.”
I wondered if I believed my own lies.
In the end:
“You should talk to him. Before you go.”
“What if you don’t come back? Do you really want him to think you don’t care? Because that’s fucked-up, man. You know me. But sometimes, I think you forget that I know you just as well. Maybe even more.”
SHE STOOD in the kitchen of the Bennett house, staring out the window. Her hands were curled against the counter. Her shoulders were tense, and she wore her grief like a shroud. Even though I hadn’t wanted anything to do with wolves for years, I still knew the respect she commanded. She was royalty, whether she wanted to be or not.
“Gordo,” Elizabeth said without turning around. I wondered if she was listening for wolves singing songs I hadn’t been able to hear for a long time. “How is he?”
“That’s to be expected.”
“I suppose,” she said quietly. “But you and I are older. Maybe not wiser, but older. Everything we’ve been through, all that we’ve seen, this is just… another thing. Ox is a boy. We’ve sheltered him as much as we could. We—”
“You brought this upon him,” I said before I could stop myself. The words were flung like a grenade, and they exploded as they landed at her feet. “If you’d stayed away, if you hadn’t brought him into this, he could still—”
“I’m sorry for what we did to you,” she said, and I choked. “What your father did. He was—it wasn’t fair. Or right. No child should ever go through what you did.”
“And yet you did nothing to stop it,” I said bitterly. “You and Thomas and Abel. My mother. None of you. You only cared about what I could be to you, not what it would mean for me. What my father did to me meant nothing to you. And then you went and left—”
“You broke the bonds with the pack.”
“Easiest decision I ever made.”
“I can hear when you lie, Gordo. Your magic can’t cover your heartbeat. Not always. Not when it matters most.”
“Fucking werewolves.” Then, “I was twelve when I was made the witch to the Bennett pack. My mother was dead. My father was gone. But still, Abel held out his hand to me, and the only reason I said yes was because I didn’t know any better. Because I didn’t want to be left alone. I was scared, and—”
“You didn’t do it for Abel.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “What the hell are you talking about?”
She finally turned and looked at me. She still had the afghan around her shoulders. At some point she’d pulled her blonde hair back into a ponytail, locks of which were loose and hung about her face. Her eyes were blue, then orange, then blue again, flickering dully. Most anyone who looked at her would have thought Elizabeth Bennett weak and frail in that moment, but I knew better. She was backed into a corner, the most dangerous place for a predator to be. “It wasn’t for Abel.”
Ah. So that was the game she wanted to play. “It was my duty.”
“My father lost control when his tether was taken from him. My father has aligned himself with—”
“We all had a part to play,” Elizabeth said. “Every single one of us. We made mistakes. We were young and foolish and filled with a great and terrible rage at everything that had been taken from us. Abel did what he thought was right back then. So did Thomas. I’m doing what I think is right now.”
“And yet you did nothing to fight your sons. To not let them make the same mistakes we did. You rolled over like a dog in that room.”
She didn’t rise to the bait. Instead she said, “And you didn’t?”
“Why what, Gordo? You have to be more specific.”
“Why are you letting them go?”
“Because we were young and foolish once, filled with a great and terrible rage. And that has now passed to them.” She sighed. “You’ve been there before. You’ve been through this. It happened once. And it’s happening again. I’m trusting you to help them avoid the mistakes we made.”
“I’m not pack.”
“No,” she said, and that shouldn’t have stung like it did. “But that’s a choice you made. Much like we are here now because of the choices we made. Maybe you’re right. Maybe if we hadn’t come here, Ox would be….”
Her eyes flashed again. “Thomas—”
I snorted. “He didn’t tell me shit. But it’s not hard to see. What is it about him?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know that Thomas knew either. Not exactly. But Ox is… special. Different. He doesn’t see it yet. And it may be a long time before he does. I don’t know if it’s magic or something more. He’s not like us. He’s not like you. But he’s not human. Not completely. He’s more, I think. Than all of us.”
“You need to keep him safe. I’ve strengthened the wards as best I can, but you need—”
“He’s pack, Gordo. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for pack. Surely you remember that.”
“I did it for Abel. And then for Thomas.”
“Lie,” she said, cocking her head. “But you almost believe it.”
I took a step back. “I need to—”
“Why can’t you say it?”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“He loved you,” she said, and I’d never hated her more. “With everything he had. Such is the way of wolves. We sing and sing and sing until someone hears our song. And you did. You heard. You didn’t do it for Abel or Thomas, Gordo. Even then. You were twelve years old, but you knew. You were pack.”
“Goddamn you,” I said hoarsely.
“I know,” she said, not unkindly. “Sometimes the things we need to hear the most are the things we want to hear the least. I loved my husband, Gordo. I will love him forever. And he knew that. Even in the end, even when Richard—” Her breath caught in her throat. She shook her head. “Even then. He knew. And I will miss him every day until I can stand at his side again, until I can look upon his face, his beautiful face, and tell him how angry I am. How stupid he is. How lovely it is to see him again, and would he please just say my name.” There were tears in her eyes, but they didn’t fall. “I hurt, Gordo. I don’t know if this ache will ever leave me. But he knew.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Only because you won’t let it be. He loved you. He gave you his wolf. And then you gave it back.”
“He made his choice. And I made mine. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want anything to do with you. With him.”
“What do you want from me?” I asked, anger filling my voice. “What the hell could you possibly want?”
“Thomas knew,” she said again. “Even at the brink of death. Because I told him. Because I showed him time and time again. I regret many things in my life. But I will never regret Thomas Bennett.”
She moved toward me, her steps slow but sure. I stood my ground, even when she placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “You leave in the morning. Don’t regret this, Gordo. Because if words are left unsaid, they will haunt you for the rest of your days.”
She brushed past me. But before she left the kitchen, she said, “Please take care of my sons. I’m trusting you with them, Gordo. If I find out you have betrayed that trust, or if you stood idly by as they faced that monster, there will be nowhere you could hide that I wouldn’t find you. I will tear you to pieces, and the regret I feel will be minimal.”
Then she was gone.
HE STOOD out on the porch, staring off into nothing, hands clasped behind his back. Once he’d been a boy with pretty blue eyes like ice, the brother to a future king. Now he was a man, hardened by the rough edges of the world. His brother was gone. His Alpha was leaving. There was blood in the air, death on the wind.
Mark Bennett said, “Is she all right?”
Because of course he knew I was there. Wolves always did. Especially when it came to their—“No.”
He didn’t turn. The porch light gleamed dully off his shaved head. He took in a deep breath, broad shoulders rising and falling. The skin of my palms itched. “It’s strange, don’t you think?”
Always the enigmatic asshole. “What is?”
“You left once. And here you are, leaving again.”
I bristled at that. “You left me first.”
“And I came back as often as I could.”
“It wasn’t enough.” But that wasn’t quite right, was it? Not even close. Even though my mother was long gone, her poison had still dripped into my ears: the wolves did this, the wolves took everything, they always will because it is in their nature to do so. They lied, she told me. They always lied.
He let it slide. “I know.”
“This isn’t—I’m not trying to start anything here.”
I could hear the smile in his voice. “You never are.”
He finally turned, still as handsome as he was the day I’d met him, though I’d been a child and hadn’t known what it meant. He was big and strong, and his eyes were that icy blue they’d always been, clever and all-knowing. I had no doubt he could feel the anger and despair that swirled within me, no matter how hard I tried to block them. The bonds between us were broken and had been for a long time, but there was still something there, no matter how much I’d tried to bury it.
He scrubbed a hand over his face, his fingers disappearing into that full beard. I remembered when he’d first started growing it at seventeen, a patchy thing I’d given him endless shit over. I felt a pang in my chest, but I was used to it by now. It didn’t mean anything. Not anymore.
I was almost convinced.
He dropped his hand and said, “Take care of yourself, okay?” He smiled a brittle smile and then moved toward the door to the Bennett house.
And I was going to let him go. I was going to let him pass right on by. That would be it. I wouldn’t see him again until… until. He would stay here, and I would leave, a reversal of the way it’d once been.
I was going to let him go because it would be easier that way. For all the days ahead.
But I’d always been stupid when it came to Mark Bennett.
I reached out and grabbed his arm before he could leave me.
We stood shoulder to shoulder. I faced the road ahead. He faced all that we would leave behind.
“This isn’t—I can’t….”
“No,” he whispered. “I don’t suppose you can.”
“Mark,” I choked out, struggling for something, anything that I could say. “I’m coming—we’re coming back. Okay? We’re—”
“Is that a promise?”
“I don’t believe your promises anymore,” he said. “I haven’t for a very long time. Watch yourself, Gordo. Take care of my nephews.”
And then he was in the house, the door closing behind him.
I stepped off the porch and didn’t look back.
I sat in the garage that bore my name, a piece of paper on the desk before me.
They wouldn’t understand. I loved them, but they could be idiots. I had to say something.
I picked up an old Bic pen and began to write.
I have to be gone for a while. Tanner, you’re in charge of the shop. Make sure you send the earnings to the accountant. He’ll handle the taxes. Ox has access to all the bank stuff, personal and shop-related. Anything you need, you go through him. If you need to hire someone to pick up the slack, do it, but don’t hire some fuckup . We’ve worked too hard to get where we are. Chris and Rico, handle the day-to-day ops. I don’t how long this is going to take, but just in case, you need to watch each other’s back. Ox is going to need you.
It wasn’t enough.
It would never be enough.
I hoped they could forgive me. One day.
My fingers were stained with ink, leaving smudges on the paper.
I turned off the lights in the garage.
I stood in the dark for a long time.
I breathed in the smell of sweat and metal and oil.
It wasn’t quite dawn when we met on the dirt road that led to the houses at the end of the lane. Carter and Kelly sat in the SUV, watching me through the windshield as I walked up, a pack slung over my shoulder.
Joe stood in the middle of the road. His head was tilted back, eyes closed as his nostrils flared. Thomas had told me once that being an Alpha meant he was in tune with everything in his territory. The people. The trees. The deer in the forest, the plants that swayed in the wind. It was everything to an Alpha, a deep-seated sense of home that one could find nowhere else.
I wasn’t an Alpha. I wasn’t even a wolf. I never wanted to be.
But I understood what he’d meant. My magic was as ingrained in this place as he was. It was different, but not so much that it mattered. He felt everything. I felt the heartbeat, the pulse of the territory that stretched around us.
Green Creek had been tied to his senses.
And it was etched into my skin.
It hurt to leave, and not just because of those we were leaving behind. There was a physical pull an Alpha and a witch felt. It called to us, saying here here here you are here here here you stay because this is home this is home this is—
“Was it always like this?” Joe asked. “For my dad?”
I glanced at the SUV. Carter and Kelly were watching us intently. I knew they were listening. I looked back at Joe, at his upturned face. “I think so.”
“We were gone, though. For so long.”
“He was the Alpha. Not just for you. Not just for your pack. But for all. And then Richard….”
Joe opened his eyes. They were not alight. “I am not my father.”
“I know. But you’re not supposed to be.”
“Are you with me?”
I hesitated. I knew what he was asking. It wasn’t formal, not by a long shot, but he was an Alpha, and I was a witch without a pack.
Take care of my nephews.
I said the only thing I could.
His shift came over him quickly, his face elongating, skin covered in white hair, claws stretching out from the tips from his fingers. And as his eyes burst into flames, he tilted his head back and sang the song of the wolf.