“I don’t understand. How did this happen?” I demanded. I gripped Audrey’s wrists like I could squeeze the answer out of her.
She shook her head. “We don’t know. It must have been the Goddess intervening.”
“Why?” a woman demanded from behind me.
Michael and I weren’t the only ones mated against our wills. Fear and anger and disbelief ran riot through those around us. It was one thing to willingly submit to a ceremony that would result in a lifelong magical commitment to someone else, another thing entirely to have it forced upon you.
“We can’t be sure,” Audrey said, her tone full of apology. “The Goddess doesn’t always reveal Her divine intentions.”
“But we didn’t offer up our blood,” I said. I was still in shock. Or was it denial? I was having trouble untangling the ball of emotions in my mind. Because half of them weren’t even mine.
Audrey pulled her hands from my hold and placed them on my cheeks. “I know, Layla. I don’t have any answers for you right now.” Her gaze went past me, to where I could feel Michael standing. “Go home. Your parents need to know what happened.”
The blood drained from my face. Oh, no. My parents.
She released me and moved away, to where Antoinette was laid out on the grass. I turned from her to face my…my mate. This couldn’t be happening. This had to be some horrible nightmare. Any moment now I would wake up.
Michael held himself perfectly still, his hands in the pockets of his slacks, feet braced wide, the picture of calm. Nathaniel stood at his side, his arm draped across the shoulders of the pretty redhead he’d been bonded to. Her much smaller arm was wrapped around his waist. Despite the concern on their faces, they looked settled. Like they’d accepted their fate and no doubt looked forward to getting to know each other. The sight turned my stomach.
“Layla, I’m so sorry,” Gia said from beside me. Her tone was full of heartache.
I couldn’t stand to hear it when she should be filled to bursting with happiness. I wanted to look at her, but it proved impossible to pull my gaze from Michael. Our hearts beat in tandem. We breathed as one. He occupied far too much space in my head, though he’d done something to calm the storm of emotions that raged beneath his polished exterior.
“We need to speak with each other,” he said. The words rolled off of his tongue with precision, slower than I was used to, as if he chose each and every one with great care.
I nodded and forced my gaze away. “Gia, go with Natalie. I’ll be fine.”
She bit her lip and looked back and forth between me and Michael. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ll call you later. Go be with your mate.”
Gia hugged me, hard, and when she pulled away there were tears in her eyes again.
Natalie reached out a hand and clasped it on my shoulder, no doubt experiencing my best friend’s emotions firsthand. “I’m sorry.”
I’d been looking at it all wrong earlier. I wasn’t going to lose Gia. Gia’s love for me meant that I’d be gaining another friend. I gripped Natalie’s shoulder in return. “Thank you. Take care of her.”
She nodded. “I will.”
“Now go,” I said, releasing Natalie to push them away.
While I’d been talking to them, Michael’s younger brother had disappeared with his mate, leaving the two of us alone together in a sea of wolves. I wanted to reach out and touch him, this stranger that until a moment ago I had only ever felt sorry for. The urge to bury my nose in his neck and learn his scent was as irresistible as it was unwelcome.
“Come on,” I said. “Unless you want to have this conversation in front of everyone?”
He shook his head and motioned me forward. “After you.”
I turned and led him through the crowd. Not even the highs and lows the people around us were experiencing distracted them away from Michael’s presence. They watched him pass with expressions ranging from loathing to disgust. Those that glanced from him to me wore open pity on their faces. One or two mouthed, “I’m so sorry” at me. I had a strange urge to snap my teeth at them.
It’s the bond, I realized. It made you hypersensitive, instilled a defensive set of instincts in newly mated wolves that made simple slights against your partner seem like full blown attacks. I turned my gaze to the ground and kept it there until we rose out of the hollow.
Michael pulled even with me then, strolling by my side as though he hadn’t a care in the world. “I’m Michael Kolbeck.”
I know who you are.
“Layla Fitzpatrick,” I said.
“Courtesy dictates some polite response here, perhaps something along the lines of “it’s a pleasure to meet you”, but given our current circumstances…” He waved a hand in a vague sort of way.
“I understand,” I told him.
We fell quiet as we neared the mouth of the forest trail, our hearts beating as one, our strides perfectly even thanks to the fact that we were the same height after all. I wanted to say something more, if only to keep him talking. I liked the sound of his voice. Would like it even without the bond. His rich timbre and careful cadence were soothing. I needed soothing right now. But I had no idea what to say. I’m sorry this happened to us? Do you and your family really control all of Boston? My head was filled with the rumors I’d heard of them.
He broke the silence when we reached the trailhead. “I hope it’s not an inconvenience, but I gave my keys to my brother so that he and Sarah can find somewhere to speak in private as well.”
Sarah must have been the name of his brother’s mate. “It’s fine. We can go to my truck. Besides, before we can talk, I have to tell my parents. I can’t let them find out what happened from someone else.” My stomach sank at the thought. “You don’t have to come with me. I can swing back here and pick you up after.”
He glanced at the unfamiliar forest around him. “I believe I would prefer to accompany you.” A small, humorless smile tugged at the corners of his full lips. “I didn’t think to bring security with us on this little venture, and the Kolbeck name is one that often inspires animosity and antagonism in our kind.”
“Then maybe I should leave you here,” I said. “I might get lucky and someone will break our bond for me.”
The only way out of a bond was death.
His gaze latched onto me. Wariness and distrust filled my mind.
I sighed. “It was a joke.”
The feeling of distrust eased. Just a little. He looked away and began setting himself to rights, smoothing a hand over his hair, tightening his tie. Outward calm returned to him with every gesture.
What had the Goddess done to me? Why had she forced me to bond with a man who had no sense of humor? The hell did I do to deserve this?
I glanced over at him. His spine was stiff. He stepped carefully, as though the thought of dirtying his Italian loafers was loathe to him. The man spoke like he was raised in a different century. He must average four syllables a word. I bet he even texted in complete sentences. And here I was, struggling just to string a coherent one together.
I wanted to rage. I wanted to scream about the unfairness of it. All this polite aloofness on his part was unsettling. Especially when I could still feel the distant echoes of his more volatile feelings threatening to boil over. The dichotomy of someone who looked and smelled perfectly calm but felt like they were barely keeping it together was going to drive me crazy. I wanted to reach out and shake him until cracks appeared in his façade and he let out the scream I could feel building inside of him.
“Why were you here?” I asked. If he hadn’t showed up, I wouldn’t be in this mess. “I thought your pack forms political alliances instead of taking part in bonding ceremonies.”
“We do,” he said. “Nathaniel is the lone believer amongst my clan. He feared it would anger your goddess if he allowed himself to be matched in our typical fashion.”
She’s your Goddess too, I wanted to say, but didn’t. No good had ever come from trying to push religion on nonbelievers.
“You came to support him?” I asked instead.
He nodded. “I did. Our mother was quite furious upon discovering the whereabouts of her two errant children.” He paused, for so long that I thought he was done speaking. “Imagine her outrage when I inform her that both of us were mated and my engagement is over, thereby spoiling the multi-million-dollar business deal my parents brokered with my fiancé’s.”
He was engaged?
I missed a step and stumbled over a tree root I had dodged a thousand times before. Michael’s hand shot out. He grabbed my bare arm above the elbow and steadied me. Metaphysical heat sparked between us, centered around our contact, and then flared into a full-blown conflagration. We leapt apart.
Michael flexed his fingers and shook his hand out as though trying to rid himself of the lingering sensation. I rubbed my own hand over skin that felt blistered. So the bond made us so hypersensitive to each other that a casual touch felt like being struck by lightning?
Great. Just wonderful. I couldn’t wait to find out what other nasty surprises were in store for us.
I kept a wide berth of him as we continued walking. “You don’t have to break up with your fiancé. There are all sorts of mated bonds. A lot are romantic in nature, but some end up being mostly political, much like the way your family is used to doing things. Others can be as simple as friendship or companionship, like my grandmother and her mate, Hank. They were widowers before joining the ceremony. There’s nothing to say we won’t settle into a role like that. It wouldn’t prevent you from marrying her.”
Michael shook his head. “Marlena is…particular. Though she falls short of being a true believer, she does put stock in signs. When I inform her of my bond to you, she’ll take it to mean that she and I aren’t destined to be together after all. I will, of course, leave the decision to her, but I believe that I know her well enough to be certain of the outcome.”
What a fucking mess. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I, for what it’s worth,” he said. “You elected to abstain from the ritual, therefore I assume it’s safe to say that this…development is less than welcome to you as well?”
“Understatement,” I answered.
His phone rang from somewhere around his middle. He fished it out of an inner pocket and glanced at the screen. “I have to take this.”
“Hello, Mother,” he said.
Werewolf hearing meant her response came through crystal clear. “Tell me your brother isn’t mated to some backwoods, inbred, moonshine swilling, hillbilly hayseed.”
Well. She seemed nice.
“I assure you, Mother, Sarah is a perfectly civilized young lady,” he answered. “She even has most of her teeth.” If not for the small flare of amusement that came through the bond, I would have thought he was serious.
“Now isn’t the time for your macabre sense of humor,” his mother growled. “Honestly, Michael, how could you go along with this insanity?”
“He is my brother. I would support him in any endeavor. Isn’t that what you raised us to do?”
“Don’t throw my own words back at me,” she said, voice snapping like a whip. “What time will you be home tonight?”
“We have been…” Michael glanced over at me, “…delayed. Expect me home tomorrow.”
She sighed, sounded disgusted. The line went dead.
Michael slipped the phone back into his pocket. What kind of a mother hangs up on their kid without so much as saying goodbye?
“Please, forgive her,” he said. “Nathaniel’s decision has left her…rattled.”
I glanced over at him. “Can’t wait to see how she reacts to your news.”
“The word catastrophic comes to mind here,” he said.
He didn’t. Not even a trace of humor played about his lips.
Shit. He was serious.
We fell silent then, emerging from the path several minutes later. His Range Rover was gone from the parking lot. I hoped his brother was faring better than we were.
“It’s open,” I told him when we reached my truck.
We climbed in and shut the doors. Michael’s scent quickly filled the cabin, much stronger than the smell of any other werewolf I’d met, testosterone and musk and maleness combining in a unique way that was all his own.
“Do the windows role down?” he asked, leaning away from me.
I jammed the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine thundered to life. I don’t know who was faster reaching for the window control, him or me.
“I don’t smell,” I told him. “The bond just makes us hypersensitive to each other’s scents.”
He stared at me, silent. In my head, he felt a little freaked out. Good. About time he caught up to the rest of the class.
I put the truck in drive and pulled out of my parking space. The trip to my parents’ house was a short and quiet one. Our pack’s land extended across two mountain ridges. Its members made their homes in the limited space of the valley between them. The warm summer night was cloudless. At this altitude the stars looked close enough that I could reach out and pluck them from the deep expanse of black they were nestled in. Like diamonds on a jeweler’s cloth.
My gaze went to the moon. Why? I asked Her.
She remained silent.
Not ten minutes later, I pulled into my parents’ driveway. I cut the engine and turned to face Michael. “I’m sorry if they say anything to insult you. They’re not great with surprises, and they’re both smart asses by nature. The fact that I didn’t tell them I was going to the ceremony will annoy them. The fact that, regardless of the circumstances, they missed my bonding might break their hearts a little.”
He nodded. “I understand. You can trust me to keep my composure.”
Weirdly, I did.
We got out of the truck. I led him up to my parents’ front door, battling against a rising tide of dread and anxiety.
“Mom? Dad?” I called as we walked inside.
“We’re in the kitchen, honey!” Mom yelled back.
I found my parents sitting on barstools at the kitchen island. Mom held a glass of wine, Dad a beer. Mom had on one of her favorite summer dresses, Dad a pair of new jeans and a nice button down. Their cheeks were rosy, like these weren’t their first drinks of the night, and belatedly I remembered that they’d gone on a date to celebrate my mom’s new promotion.
“I’m guessing no one’s told you yet,” I said by way of greeting.
Mom frowned, looking past me to Michael. “Told us what? And who’s this handsome young man?”
I stood aside and made the introductions. “Mom, Dad, this is Michael Kolbeck. Michael, these are my parents, Christina and Jonathan Fitzpatrick.”
Mom’s face fell when she heard his name. “Please, call me Chris.”
“Jon,” Dad said, eyeing Michael warily.
They stepped forward to shake each other’s hands and exchange pleasantries, and I watched Michael do the thing that people always did when they saw the three of us together for the first time. His gaze ran over my mom, a petite woman of Japanese descent with thin black hair, delicate features and hooded eyes, and then my father, a towering blonde Scandinavian with blindingly white skin and blue eyes, before coming to rest on me, trying to determine where my facial features and olive complexion came from.
He’d have to wait to hear my whole life story. First, we had to get through the next few hours.
Dad pulled out one of the kitchen barstools for Michael. “What brings you up here? Tonight’s ceremony?”
“Thank you,” Michael said, unbuttoning his suit jacket as he accepted the chair and sat. “And yes. I was in attendance supporting my younger brother, Nathaniel.”
“How’d the two of you meet?” Mom asked. Dad retook his seat, but she remained standing. The look on her face was uneasy, her mom instincts kicking in. She lifted her chin and took a deep breath through her nose, scenting my emotions. Her expression shifted into concern.
I sidestepped her question and went to the fridge. “Michael, you want anything to drink? Beer? Wine?” I glanced back and our gazes met.
“Something stronger, perhaps?” he asked. His dark eyes were fathomless, not a hint of the discomfort I could feel through the bond visible in his expression or posture.
I turned away and pulled a bottle filled with amber colored liquid from a cabinet. “Bourbon?”
“That’ll do,” he said.
“Lala, what’s going on?” Dad asked, using my nickname.
“Give me a minute here,” I said. I poured me and Michael a healthy amount of alcohol each and slid his glass across the marble of the island.
He caught it and lifted it toward me. “To grace under pressure.”
I nodded at him in thanks and took a hearty swig. “We met at the ceremony. I went to support Gia,” I told my parents.
Mom’s expression crumpled. “Oh, honey, why didn’t you tell us she was going? We would have gone to support her too.”
I hated to see her hurt. It only made me dread the pain to come. “I’m sorry. I really wanted to, but she didn’t tell her mom, so I thought it would be wrong if you were there and she wasn’t.”
Dad frowned. “Why didn’t she tell Karen?”
“I think she didn’t want her there if it went wrong. They’ve been through so much together the last few years. She wanted to spare her another heartache if she could.”
“Was she bonded?” Mom asked.
Dad exhaled heavily. “Goddess be praised.”
“To who? Anyone we know?” Mom asked.
I shook my head. “A woman our age named Natalie. Past that, I couldn’t tell you much else, other than that they both looked really happy. The ceremony went…differently than the last one I snuck out too.”
Mom finally sat, resting her elbows on the countertop as she watched me. “What do you mean?”
I swallowed another fortifying sip of whiskey before answering. “It seemed fine at first. The mystic was a woman named Antoinette from somewhere down south.”
Dad’s expression perked up at this. “Was she older?”
Mom looked over at him. “Must be the one Audrey always talks about. She’s supposed to be one of the most powerful mystics alive.”
I snorted. “Well, good thing she was leading the ceremony then, or it might have gone much worse.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed. “How so?”
“The ritual…got away from her,” I said. “I overheard Audrey say that someone else was trying to take control of it. The way Antoinette spoke afterward made it seem like she was implying that it was the Goddess.”
Dad released a noisy breath. Mom picked up her wine and drained the rest of it. The spikey smell of their combined fear filled my nose.
“What is it?” I asked. “All the other old people were weirded out when they heard that too, but no one would say why.”
Dad unfurled to his impressive height. “First off, we’re not old.” He looked at Mom. “Another, Chris?” She nodded. “And secondly, in all my life, I’ve only seen what I would quantify as the Goddess’s interference three times.”
He grabbed himself another beer and handed Mom the bottle of wine. She poured herself a large glass, went to pass the bottle back to him, and then frowned and instead sat it in front of her on the counter.
“Better just keep it,” she muttered.
You’re gonna need it, I almost told her.
Amusement flared across the bond. I turned to look at Michael. Our eyes met, briefly, before his gaze slid away from mine. What the hell did he suddenly find so funny?
Dad popped open his beer and retook his seat. His gaze landed on me. “The last time I saw the Goddess interfere was just before you entered our lives.”
I stared at him.“Do I even want to know what the others were?”
Mom frowned, hard, and shook her head back and forth as though wishing someone had invented brain bleach already. “Probably best you don’t ask.”
I sat down beside her, my knees a little shaky. If what was to come was anything like the months leading up to my adoption…
I lifted my glass and drained my drink.
Mom rubbed a hand over my back like she had when I was a kid. “What happened tonight?”
I forced myself to meet her eyes. “How do you want me to tell you? Long drawn out explanation, or rip it off like a band aid?”
She paused to think about it for a second before looking over at my dad. “Band aid?”
She turned back to me, waiting.
I dug deep, drumming up my last reserves of courage. “The ritual was short and brutal and left half of us on the ground when it ended. It was like being caught up in a metaphysical tornado. The magic felt like it imploded at the end and everyone inside the monoliths was bonded simultaneously.”
“Woah. That’s intense,” Dad said.
My answering laugh was bitter. “Oh, just wait. It gets worse. We all thought it was over. It felt like it was over. The mystics told us it was over. So we went down to congratulate our friends and family. And then there was another flare of power, and even though we didn’t cut ourselves, or imbue our blood in the plinth, or agree to take part in the ritual, about fifty of us found ourselves bonded against our wills.”
Mom’s hand disappeared from my back. “Fifty…of us?” Her voice shook. “Oh, Goddess. Your hearts. I heard them beating together this whole time and told myself that it was just a fluke.”
“No,” Dad said from the other side of her. He leaned forward to look at me. “Layla. No.”
“That’s what I said,” I told him.
Mom looked at me aghast. “You were bonded. Against your will. To Michael Kolbeck.”
Together, my parents turned to stare at him.
He met their gazes levelly, one expensive elbow draped on the countertop as he swilled his whisky around in a circle. His expression was one of polite indifference. “I assure you, this turn of events is as unwelcome to me as it is to your daughter.”
“Unlikely,” Mom said, reaching for the wine. Then, under her breath, “I should have bought a bigger bottle.”
“Be nice, Mom,” I said. “Michael has a fiancé.”
Dad ran his hands over his face and then up through his hair, making it stand on end. “What a nightmare.”
Michael’s phone rang again from inside his pocket, and he stood to retrieve it. “It’s Nathaniel. Please pardon me.” He turned and headed toward the front door.
As soon as it closed behind him, my parents converged, Mom hugging me, Dad’s long arms managing to hug both of us.
“What the hell do I do?” I asked them.
“Fucked if I know,” Mom answered.
“What an unmitigated disaster,” Dad said from above us. “You are totally screwed, Lala.”
I laughed into Mom’s shoulder. “Thank you both so much for all of your love and support. Truly, I don’t know what I would do without such steadfast parental guidance.”
“You know we’re teasing,” Mom said.
We untangled ourselves from each other.
“I know,” I said. “And thank you. If someone didn’t make a joke about all of this soon, I would have started sobbing.”
She smoothed my hair back from my face. “There’s a way through this. There always is.”
I reached out and grabbed her before she pulled away, looking from her to Dad and back again. “I’m sorry you weren’t there. Never in a million years did I think it would happen like this.”
Dad leaned forward and wrapped his fingers over our joined hands. “We know.”
“A Kolbeck,” Mom said. She pulled free and picked up her wine glass. “I can’t believe it.”
Dad looked to me in question. “How’s he been about all of this?”
I glanced toward the front door, straining my ears. If I couldn’t hear him, he most likely couldn’t hear me. “He’s been better than I have. The dominant emotion coming across the bond right now is slight annoyance, even though I can feel him suppressing other ones. He must have iron self-control.”
Mom chuckled. “Be thankful for that, at least. Your father and I were even younger than you when we bonded and between the hormones and the snark, it’s lucky we survived the first year.”
Dad picked his beer up and sent her a smoldering look. “Come on, now. It wasn’t all bad.”
Mom made an appreciative sound low in her throat. “No. It. Wasn’t.”
Ew. I leaned forward and reached for the bottle of whiskey. “Please don’t make this night any worse for me.”
Mom swiveled back around to face me. “I’m just saying. Michael is what? Thirty? That’s a good age for the bond. Most wolves have calmed down by then, and from the looks of him, he’s pretty hard to ruffle.”
I poured myself a splash more alcohol. “He definitely seems that way.” At least on the outside.
“You can use that to help you,” Dad said. “Through the bond, you can tap into each other’s emotions. When you get upset or start to panic – both totally valid emotions, by the way – you can use his calm to even you out.”
“The sooner I learn how to do that, the better. I haven’t been this upset since…”
I didn’t have to finish the sentence. We all knew what time period I was referring to.
The front door opened and then closed. Michael’s footfalls followed, growing ever louder as he approached. Likewise, my awareness of him increased. I’d been trying hard to push it down, but for some reason it felt like it was getting worse. Like he had burrowed into the back of my mind and made a little home to take up permanent residence in.
“How’s your brother?” I asked when he rejoined us.
“Quite well, thank you. He and Sarah appear to be well-suited for each other.” He came to stand by my side of the island, looking at me from only a foot away. Those strong brows drew together, a line forming between them. I felt a flare of confusion in the bond, as though he didn’t know how he’d ended up so close. He took a measured step back. “I’ve asked him to hold his tongue about our…situation. I feel as though it would be better if I broke the news to our parents in person.”
“You don’t think they’ll find out through the grapevine before you can get to them?” I asked.
Michael shook his head. “They would discard any such rumor out of hand, declaring it preposterous. Now,” he lifted his gaze to my parents, “seeing as how I only have a conceptual grasp of what being bonded means, I believe a crash course is in order?”
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.