I slept like shit that night, which is why I was already half awake when Michael snuck into my room at three a.m. He wore dark jeans, a black t-shirt, and a look of determination.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We need to leave.”
“I don’t have time to explain. I know I’ve asked so much of you already, but I hope you can trust me in this right now.”
Fear prickled through the bond. What the hell was going on?
I scooted out of the bed. “I trust you.”
“Change into dark clothes and meet me in the living room when you’re ready. And hasten. We don’t have much time.”
It took me maybe two minutes to do so, but only because I had to double back for my phone and wallet. For some reason, I didn’t think we’d be back here in time for breakfast. Michael was waiting by the doors to the balcony when I emerged from my room, tugging my hair up into a ponytail.
“We’re going to jump,” he said.
He didn’t have to explain why. If we were sneaking out, this was the best way to go. Someone might pick up on us moving through the house, despite the fact that for shifters, they seemed a little hard of hearing.
“Lead the way,” I said.
He strode out into the night, compact frame moving with lupine grace. Moonlight hit his face at a hard angle, casting it half in shadow. It made him look dangerous. Like someone you would cross the street to get away from. I liked it.
We reached the railing at the same time and vaulted it, landing quietly beside each other on the grass thirty feet below. He turned to move to the right, but I grabbed his shirt and stopped him. Footfalls came from that way. The creak of leather. A gentle slide of canvas over canvas. Sounds of a guard, moving closer. Michael arched a brow at me in question, and I shook my head, pointing in the other direction. He nodded. We went left.
The extensive grounds looked different than they had during the day, shrouded now in a gray world of shadows and filled with the chorus of a summer night. Crickets chirped in the grass. From overhead came the soft flapping of bat wings. Some small rodent rooted through the mulch in a nearby flower bed. Off in the distance, car engines revved as stoplights turned green.
The guards were out in force. Between avoiding them and the cameras that Michael pointed out, a journey that would have been a two-minute stroll in the daylight turned into a twenty-minute adrenaline-filled expedition.
For a city wolf, Michael still had good instincts. He moved in a low crouch, rolling his feet from heel to toe to soften the sound of his steps. Where light spilled from the house to cut across our path, he paused, waiting until I assured him that no one was close by before sprinting through. We reached pavement. His footfalls were barely perceptible on it, quieter even than my own. My surprise didn’t last long before my competitive nature kicked in. I spent the rest of our escape trying to be stealthier than him.
I didn’t succeed. It was a crushing blow to my ego.
Michael slipped into the garage through a side door, and I followed him in. We stayed crouched until we reached his SUV. He unlocked it quickly, jammed the garage door button before my butt was even in the seat, then cranked the engine over and roared out of there the second we had enough clearance. I scrambled to get my seatbelt on, Mom’s warning about not being immortal blaring through my mind.
Men and women in black camo and face paint poured out of the woods, toting a small armory of weapons, everything from machine guns to – what the hell? Was that a battle axe?
“What are you even going to do with that thing?” I yelled as we sped past the man who wielded it.
Several people went so far as to try and get in front of the Range Rover, but they either saw the hard look on Michael’s face, or heeded my frantic arm waving to get out of the way, because they wisely dove aside instead of being crushed beneath the tires.
Michael reached up and pushed a button clipped to his sun visor over and over again. I assumed it worked the front gate. I clenched up when it came into view, lumbering slowly open.
We’re not going to make it.
I braced for impact.
Michael slowed just enough to squeeze past, both of us shuddering as we broke through the protective ward.
I let out a deep sigh of relief and looked over at him. “You wanna tell me what this is all abo-”
The screen in his dashboard flashed to life just as the sound of a phone ringing flooded the speakers. I was so on edge that I jumped.
The caller ID said it was his mother. He hit accept.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she demanded.
“We’ll be staying in the Back Bay for the next several days,” he said.
“The hell you will. Turn the car around, Michael.”
He hung up on her. For good measure, he turned his phone off. In the back of my head I felt his savage sense of triumph.
I stared at his profile. “So.”
“You’re wondering why I’m absconding with you like a thief in the night?”
“You got it.”
Sure, dinner had started as a disaster, but it smoothed out after I’d been officially welcomed into the fold. Michael returned to his extremely polite self. Conversation flowed. The servers cleared the cold and uneaten first course from the table and delivered us a hearty stew for the second. His mother had been damn near civil. So what was this about?
“If I had been aware of your history, I never would have brought you there,” Michael said.
He held up a hand. “No, don’t. I’m not saying this to coerce another apology from you. We really should desist with them. I’m simply telling you because we won’t be going back there.”
“But my stuff is back there.”
He turned the SUV onto the wider avenue that led away from his parents’ street, slowing to the speed limit. “I’ll send someone for it. In the interim, I’ll give you my credit card tomorrow and you can replenish your essentials.”
I rubbed a hand over my face. “Why, Michael?”
He glanced down at his phone, like he was double checking that it was off. “My mother was going to use you.”
“Use me how?”
“In the same way she uses all of us. To further whatever plans she has.” He gripped the steering wheel, the muscles of his forearms flexing. “She manipulated both of us at dinner and we played right into it.”
“In a thousand minute ways, half of which I probably missed or misinterpreted,” he said. “For instance, she placed all of my male relatives around you less as a shield and more to antagonize you. She immediately confronted us to throw us off balance. Both her insinuation concerning your wellbeing and her calling me an idiot were meant to test our bond, to discover just how protective we are of each other. And the way she outed you was designed to turn the family against you, so that if she did order your execution, they wouldn’t put up much of a fuss afterward.”
I really didn’t like that woman. “Wonderful.”
The smell of Michael’s anger wafted through the SUV, a clear sign of just how upset he was. “And don’t believe for even a second that her welcoming you to the family assures your safety. My mother manipulates everyone around her almost without thought. It’s as natural as breathing to her. No doubt she saw your mastery over the shift less as a confirmation of your control and more as an ability to exploit. That, paired with your bloodline, would be seen as a great threat to our enemies. One she would find some way to use to her advantage.”
I let out a shaky breath. “What made her like this?”
“Her parents,” he said. “At least that’s my assumption, based on the way she attempted to raise me in her own image. As her heir, I know her better than perhaps anyone, even my father. I know the way her mind works. Just who she would casually mention your heritage to for the news to have the biggest impact. I can see it now, the way the rumor would build. The parties she would invite you to in order to show you off and let the others know she wasn’t bluffing. All with the aim of you acting as a distraction while she worked toward her true goal in the background. And if one of the other factions in the city happened to lash out and preemptively kill you before you could cause them trouble, well, then no one would be able to directly pin your death on her.”
It was a struggle not to growl. “Then we don’t play her game.”
He shook his head. “Even knowing her as I do, I still find myself carefully placed on her political chess board. I don’t rise to her bait, and I realize later that I was caught in a double blind. In actuality, that was what she had planned for me to do. Or I overreact in a way I’m sure she didn’t anticipate, only to find out days or even weeks later that she did.”
What a piece of work that woman was. I needed to call my parents and reiterate how much I loved them. I looked out the window at the city rising above us. Being so close to it was more bearable at night. That or I was too tired to be overstimulated. “Why do you put up with this, Michael?”
“For everyone else,” he said. “And to attempt to curtail the worst of her nature. She may do terrible things, but there is a purpose behind them. Our enemies are ruthless, so she must be too. To her, it doesn’t matter who she hurts so long as our family remains safe and her territory intact.”
“So we beat her by taking away her chess pieces? Is that what this is about?”
“That’s the hope.”
“What’s to stop her from telling everyone about me anyway? Out here in the city, I’ll be an easier target.”
His teeth flashed in the darkness. “Ah, but I’m out here alone with you now. She’s seen how protective the bond has made me over you. I have never challenged her like I did tonight. And now she knows that there’s a possibility I could get caught in the crossfire if she exposes you. She won’t risk that.”
I really hoped he was right. “What if this was somehow her plan all along?”
Michael cut a glance at me. “That paranoia will serve you well. We can’t discount that as a possibility, but judging by her reaction at dinner, and her response to us leaving, I don’t currently believe it was her intent. I think she wanted to keep you close. You’re an unknown commodity. She can’t learn how best to manipulate you without first knowing you. Tonight was all about testing you. If we had stayed, she would have continued to test you until she discovered every one of your buttons. And then she would have invited you out in public, and started pushing them.”
“You know, I think a city full of homicidal preternaturals on the brink of war sounds like a much nicer place to hang out than your parents’ house after all.”
Michael laughed. It was the first time I’d heard him really laugh. The sound was low, melodious, and joyful. His full lips spread wide to reveal perfectly even teeth. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he looked over at me. I stared at him. The man had dimples.
I turned away and schooled my thoughts. Danger lay that way. Much safer to keep my mind on his diabolical mother and the mess I now found myself in.
We fell silent as we crept closer to the city center. I gazed out the window, our surroundings fading as I turned my focus inward. In our pack, we told stories of legendary mated pairs, wolves bound together from warring clans, who started out as bitter enemies but eventually united their people under one banner. Would Michael and I be counted among them one day? Or would we end up serving as a cautionary tale? After everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, I was worried we’d be the latter.
We eased to a stop at a light just off the highway. The homeless man on the corner holding the “Anything will help” sign nodded at our car. Michael lifted his fingers off the steering wheel in greeting.
I sat up and started to pay attention. There was foot traffic here, restaurants offering a wide variety of fares. My gaze skipped over the people littering the sidewalks, coming to rest here and there on ones who moved just a little bit different than the rest. They walked with more purpose, had an innate litheness that humans couldn’t compete with. Shifters.
We rolled through intersection after intersection. I counted a dozen werewolves in the streets between them, some hidden in shadow, some standing bold as brass beneath the electric glow of neon lights. These were the Kolbecks’ foot soldiers, out prowling their territory as they kept the peace and held the front line.
Last night Michael told me that the Back Bay was the most northern point of the werewolves’ turf in Boston. The border with the vamps started at the Commons. The bloodsuckers made their roost in the very heart of the city, but their feeding grounds extended all the way down to Southy and west into Roxbury. To the north, the witches ruled over everything between the Charles and Mystic Rivers, from Bunker Hill up to Medford.
“Quite the forward force,” I said.
Michael glanced over at me. “You noticed?”
“You have a good eye for security. Were you an enforcer in your pack?”
“Nope. We didn’t have any need for them. Our pack is pretty large, and we’re on good terms with the Allagash pack in Maine and the Long Trail pack in Vermont. If anyone threatened us, they’d have to face several hundred pissed off wolves.”
“Only several hundred?”
I glanced over at him. “You say that like it’s a small number.”
He was quiet.
“Michael, how many wolves are in your pack?”
“Counting the outlying communities that answer to us, roughly five thousand.”
Five thousand wolves. Living in the city, its suburbs, and the rest of the heavily populated state. How did I not know this? How did they stand it? And how the hell had they avoided discovery by all the humans around them?
“You had no idea,” Michael said, picking up on my shock.
“No. There weren’t many other wolves in Amherst.”
“Because of the witches.”
I nodded. “And I’ve never really paid much attention to pack politics or other clans. With my family history, it seemed like a good idea to keep my head down.”
“I’ll need to get you caught up. There are pack politics and then there are inner pack politics. Here in the city, you need to worry about both. With so many wolves answering to us, there’s a constant struggle for dominance and supremacy. And we have several competing factions within the ranks.”
I could already see where this was going. “Each of which will want to know where I stand in the hierarchy.”
Michael nodded. “And may want to challenge whatever position they think you hold.”
I put my face in my hands and fought off a wave of exhaustion. The past 48 hours had finally caught up to me. Bonded against my will. My life packed up. The overstimulation of the city. Michael’s family. Warring preternaturals. And now this.
Michael reached out and gripped my shoulder through my t-shirt. “We’re almost there,” he said, no doubt feeling how done I was with today.
A few minutes later he turned away from the Charles river, onto a quieter street lined with brownstones. He took another turn, down a one-way lane that ran between buildings. The Range Rover barely fit. The vehicle crawled to a stop as Michael hit another button on his visor, then we turned, taking a concrete ramp down beneath the buildings and into a small garage that looked more like a bunker.
A large Latino man in his mid-forties, his graying hair cut into a severe buzzcut, detached himself from the wall and came over to greet us. The breadth of his shoulders and chest spoke of long hours spent in the gym. His flinty brown eyes were hard. You could break your fist on his jaw. The way he moved projected a persona of barely contained violence.
My hackles rose, sensing danger. “Who is he?”
“Ronald, my head of security,” Michael answered. “He’s not a threat.”
I did my best to curtail the urge to snarl at him and climbed out of the car. Fighting instincts that had been bred into my blood over the past few centuries wasn’t easy. The fact that I was tired, stressed, and in way over my head only made it harder.
Michael joined me on my side of the SUV, just before Ronald reached us.
The older man came to a halt a few feet away, looked me over, and then turned to his boss. “Your mother has called three times.” His voice was a deep baritone that seemed to rumble up out of his chest. He smelled annoyed.
“Stop answering the phone,” Michael said.
Ronald raised a brow. His tone turned acerbic. “You gonna step in front of the bullet she tries to put in me for disobeying her?”
Michael made a low sound, bordering on a growl. Apparently, we were both at our limit. “Fine. Keep answering. What does she want?”
“Demand is the word for what she’s been doing,” Ronald answered. He lifted a meaty hand and began counting off fingers. “She demands that you return home. She demands that you submit yourself to your alpha. She demands that you apologize. She demands that your mate,” he cut me another searching look, “apologizes as well.”
I frowned. “What the hell did I do?”
This time his dark gaze landed on me and stuck. “She’s under the impression that this little escape act was your idea.”
Beside me, Michael sighed. “Don’t disobey any direct orders if you can help it. And pull our best people in. Layla will likely draw some unwanted attention.”
Ronald snorted. “No shit. You could have warned me you were bringing a nuclear bomb into the city.” Then, to me. “The fuck are you, anyway?”
Michael put a preemptively restraining hand on my shoulder. “Don’t pay any mind to Ronald. Sarcasm is his default.” He turned back to the larger man. “She is Layla. She’s not an alpha, merely powerful. Past that, no one needs to know.”
Ronald’s expression flattened. “Not even your head of security?”
Michael shook his head.
“Your mother know what she is?”
“Then it will get out eventually,” Ronald said. “You know it’s better to get ahead of her. Put it out yourself. That way you can control the way it’s done and we don’t find ourselves in an unplanned shitstorm.”
I couldn’t help it. “Which is somehow better than a planned shitstorm?”
Ronald looked at me and nodded, expression flat. “At least in a planned one you know where to stand with the umbrella.”
Ask a stupid question.
A surge of protectiveness flowed through the bond, and I realized now what was happening. Michael’s need to keep me safe had gone to war with his reason and they were locked in battle, both digging in, refusing to give ground. To reveal my lineage would be to place my safety in the hands of a man I didn’t know. To keep my lineage hidden would be to place my safety in his mother’s hands, a woman I knew and didn’t trust enough to turn my back on. The decision was a no brainer, but it seemed that Michael was just now finding out what the bond could do to logical thought.
I made the decision for him. “I was born into the MacKenzie Valley pack.”
Ronald put his hands on his hips. “Well, fuck.”
Michael, freed from his inner struggle, found his voice again. “We’ll figure out how to spin it in the morning.”
Ronald clapped a hand on his shoulder and cracked a smile. “Sure we will, boss.” Then he turned and walked away, pulling his phone from his pocket. “Code orange,” he said into it. “Call the enforcers in. We got a big ass problem in a tiny ass body.”
“I’m not that small,” I muttered at his back. Just because he was a damn giant.
Michael led me in the opposite direction, toward an ornate set of doors that opened to reveal an old fashioned but thankfully well-maintained elevator. The doors shut behind us, trapping us together in a tiny space that quickly filled up with our scents. The car had been bearable because we’d blasted the air on the way into the city. This was cloying. I could almost taste him on my tongue, which threatened to open the pandora’s box of inappropriate thoughts I’d secured with heavy-duty duct tape in the back of my mind.
Michael, taking shallow breaths through his mouth to mitigate my own scent, flipped open what looked like an innocuous panel on the wall to reveal a state-of-the-art keypad. He punched a seven-digit code into it, pressed his thumb on a small black square to have his fingerprint scanned, and then pushed a button. The elevator hummed to life and began to lift us upward.
“My apartment is on the third floor,” he said. “The whole brownstone is ours. Security lives on the first two and works out of the top two, placing a barrier between us and anyone hoping to gain access to our rooms.”
“What about the windows?”
“Bulletproof. With blast curtains and Kevlar shutters that shut automatically when motion is detected outside. Which you can expect them to do several times a day.” A hint of amusement unfurled from him. “Because pigeons.”
I laughed. Thanks to my current stress level, it came out slightly hysterical.
His amusement fled, replaced by concern and a bone-deep weariness that dragged me further into my own state of exhaustion. Either I was getting better at reading his moods, or he was too tired to guard them.
The elevator slowed and then stopped. The doors whooshed open to reveal a different apartment than what I had expected. I’d been anticipating more beige. This was done in gunmetal gray, cast iron and brick. It was modern, masculine, and industrial. There wasn’t a single piece of art on the walls. The décor was minimal. It made the place feel open, eased some of the claustrophobia that being in the inner city had triggered.
“Where can I sleep?” I asked, shuffling in.
“The spare bedroom is to the right,” Michael answered.
“See you on the other side,” I said, beelining toward it.
“Good night, Layla.”
“Night,” I said, so tired that I somehow managed to slur a single syllable word.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.