Leila sat against a large elm tree, her head pressed back against the rough bark. She fiddled idly with her long brown hair, braided over her shoulder as she watched the morning sun glitter over the lake.
It was pleasantly quiet; the gentle sound of the wind rustling the trees and rippling the water was soothing. She always liked this spot. No one bothered her there.
She wore a white pullover sweater, jeans, and some white sneakers. Though it was nearly the beginning of spring, the coldness of winter still lingered.
It was not comfortable on the skin. But the alternative was something she was trying to avoid this close to the equinox.
The blood moon was in four days.
It was late March and the distinct feel of spring was in the air; the forest was blooming again. Green was returning. Normally she would enjoy this time of year, but now it just felt like a death sentence.
And as if to emphasize her gloomy thought, a few hard snaps of branches in the distance, far beyond the range of human ears, sent a flicker of annoyance through her.
Leila briefly scanned the woodland’s edge across the lake.
Even in her private moments, she was never alone.
Although she couldn’t see them, she could smell them. Gregor’s enforcers were just at the edge of her senses.
They were always out there.
Her stomach twisted at the bitter reminder. The whole situation made her sick.
At that moment she noticed the rapid approach of another from the direction of the main house.
By the distinct heaviness in his gait, she knew who it was even before she caught his scent. He was downwind from her.
She didn’t bother glancing back as her mother’s enforcer shifted behind her.
“Young alpha, you are wanted at the main house.” Egnel spoke in Romanian, his tone careful. As if Leila didn’t know that.
It was the whole reason she was out there. Leila said nothing, she just let the silence linger.
“I thought you were going to school today?” Egnel continued. His tone was strange. It was clear he was just talking to talk.
Even as emotionless as enforcers were supposed to be, Leila always had no problem reading Egnel.
And he seemed to hate the situation even more than she.
“No. Not much point, is there?” Leila said bitterly in slightly accented English. She felt the air between them grow tense.
She shouldn’t be taking it out on him. Leila sighed.
“I picked up my paperwork yesterday, so I decided not to go,” Leila said.
It would have been her last day. She had enough credits to graduate the previous semester, but she wanted to finish by the end of the year, to prolong her human distraction as much as possible.
She was the only one of her age-mates to attend school with the humans. It took a lot to convince her mother.
Humans fascinated her.
But she was forced to quit. The one tiny joy she had left since she was claimed by Gregor two weeks ago.
It only took two weeks to change her life for the absolute worst.
A long silence passed, and Leila hoped he would just leave her alone. As silly as that was.
“Your mother demands your presence,” Egnel continued in accented English with a tone of finality.
Meaning…if she did not go willingly, he’d drag her.
Leila stood reluctantly.
“Is my sister there?” Leila asked as she turned to start walking. She wasn’t hopeful. She doubted Gregor would allow her out.
He never did.
The possessive bastard.
“No,” Egnel said with no emotion.
The news was nothing surprising, but it was disappointing even still.
Egnel turned to walk with her. He was a massive male with brown hair and brown eyes. Although everything about him screamed dangerous and deadly, she always found his brown eyes rather warm.
Maybe that was just her bias. He was like family.
She caught a few gray hairs reflecting in the afternoon sun. He was far too young for that. They were most likely caused by her; the thought of that made her smile.
Her grandfather never was much of a fatherly presence. He had always acted as strictly her alpha, but Egnel was different.
Even though his job was just to protect her, he also spent time with her all throughout her childhood. He taught her things.
He probably was the closest she had to a father.
And although she used to hate it, she missed him not being with her all the time.
He had been her enforcer her entire childhood, but as she and her sister grew and started to live separate lives, he was assigned strictly to Joana.
Throughout the years, she had a rotating roster of enforcers. Leila was always considered a trouble-maker by her grandfather.
He kept trying to find the right enforcer that could keep her in check. Her last one lasted the longest at almost six months, but now even he was reassigned.
Her grandfather found her protection unnecessary since Gregor had six Ruguru enforcers constantly following her.
That just seemed like overkill.
“You don’t have to walk with me, I’ll be there,” Leila said. She had no plan to shift, and she knew it was cold. Egnel was bare.
Unlike humans, their kind did not care about nudity. They were creatures of nature through and through. It was how they were born. Nudity was natural to them, not sexual.
It was something she would never understand about humans.
But there was plenty she didn’t understand. Like makeup, plastic surgery, basically all cosmetic fakeness. Why did humans have such obsessions with changing themselves?
Their kind didn’t engage in any of that. They valued nature.
Not that they didn’t wear clothes. When in skin form, they were obviously just as vulnerable to the elements as humans. But they stuck to more natural fabrics. They were sensitive to chemicals.
Egnel ignored the comment and kept walking beside her.
They continued through the woodland until they reached one of the many dirt paths. As they got closer to the main house, the path branched out in many directions.
There were scattered cottages and cabins in the area. It was all the housing for their lower-ranked pack members.
Sometimes Leila envied their privacy.
Just as she rounded the last bend to the packhouse, she noticed various small pieces of clothing scattered along the dirt near the forest’s edge.
She glanced to the woods and could hear them far into the trees.
The playful growls and pitter-patter of paws upon the dirt were unmistakable. It did not take them long to notice her. Leila braced herself.
A dozen small wolves bound from the tree line directly at her. Leila was able to keep upright after the first onslaught, but by the second she was grounded.
The pups pawed and whined when she did not shift. With a sigh, she scratched behind the nearest pup’s ear.
“Not today,” Leila said glumly. She sat up quickly when she heard the door of the house open, followed by familiar footsteps on the wrap-around porch.
“Leila, where have you been?” Her mother, Adelina, spoke from the porch in her thick Romanian accent. Her tone was annoyed, but Leila could hear the underlying tension in her voice.
She instantly felt guilty.
Adelina took in Leila’s dirt-encrusted clothes and hair and her face turned even more disapproving.
“You don’t have time to change, they’re in the backroom,” Adelina said sternly.
Leila shot the pups a playful scowl for getting her into even more trouble before she agilely pushed up to her feet and headed toward the house.
She couldn’t help but cast a hateful glance at the familiar SUVs that held such an abhorrent scent as she walked past them up the driveway.
She couldn’t stand those females.
Behind her, Egnel was scolding the pups in First Tongue; it was the language of their ancestors, every wolf was familiar, but only purebloods still spoke it fluently.
They were born with the ability to. Her pack, the Copiii lunii, was the last pureblood pack in existence.
The sound of children’s giggling soon replaced the wolves’ mewls as Egnel continued his reprimand on how it was disrespectful to knock down an alpha blood.
Leila glanced back.
The nude little ones scrambled around gathering up their clothes to redress themselves. It was clear they could care less what he said.
Pups were wild like that.
“I told you to be back before breakfast,” Adelina said once Leila was within comfortable speaking distance, but she had no anger in her tone.
Leila did not look at her, she just walked right past her with a defeated gait.
“Leila,” her mom said gently as she caught her arm. Leila paused but kept her eyes averted.
Their relationship had not been the same since that dreadful day two weeks ago. Not that she blamed her mother. They had no choice.
They just made their bed with the wrong pack many many years ago.
They had all been deceived.
And now her mother and grandfather had to think of the pack, not her. They were alphas first and foremost, and her family second.
Though she was prepared to do what she had to for her pack, it did not make it sting any less.
It did not make it any easier to swallow.
Adelina sighed and released her.
“Behave. I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Adelina warned in Romanian.
Leila just gave a slight nod and entered the house. She hated the scent of those females. Even from the other side of the house, they offended her nose.
Everyone she passed on the way to the backroom seemed just as irritated as she by the intruders, but it was clear they were trying their best not to show it.
The females met her gaze with a respectful nod, but the males avoided her eyes. She made them visibly uncomfortable, and she did not have to pretend to know why.
She was an unmated female nearing her heat.
“Leila, you’re late,” Olivia said with obvious disapproval the moment Leila walked into the parlor.
Leila’s eyes snapped to her soon-to-be “mother-in-law” as the humans would call it. She had shorter black hair and blue eyes.
She was in her sixties, but wolves aged slower than the average human as their lifespans were longer, so she could probably pass for a woman in her thirties. She had no age lines yet.
Her mother Elodie sat beside her. Leila guessed she was likely in her eighties but looked roughly in her fifties.
Clearly, she had lived a pampered life. She had brown hair and unkind brown eyes. Leila often wondered if her face was even capable of not scowling.
Lastly, Cecilia, her soon-to-be “sister-in-law” took after her grandmother’s looks. Cecilia was closer in age to Leila’s mother.
It just made the thought of mating her brother even more repulsive. Although sometimes large age gaps were unavoidable for her kind, she felt this was ridiculous.
Gregor was over double her age.
“Sit, we have much to discuss,” Olivia said with a bite to her tone.
She was acting as if she owned the place. Leila hardened her eyes and remained standing. All three females’ expressions darkened.
“We have many details to discuss before Friday. You have not been present, that stops today,” Olivia said harshly.
Leila bristled. She was an alpha daughter and a pureblood at that. This bitch was beneath her. It angered her inner wolf that she was trying to tell her what to do.
“Leila, sweetheart. Sit for a moment. We just have to go over a few things before tomorrow,” Adelina spoke gently from behind her.
Leila relaxed only when she felt her mother’s hand on her back.
She was young and impulsive still. The alpha blood in her was still hot from the hormones of new maturity. “It will get easier to control when you are older,” her mother would often tell her.
The fact that it was close to the equinox moon didn’t help either—it spiked her agitation.
Adelina gave her another look when she did not immediately sit. It was a warning. She was not acting like her mother now—she was her alpha.
It was a reminder that they had no other choice. This was for their pack. They were not weaker, but they were smaller.
They did not have the numbers to protect themselves from such a larger pack.
Leila stiffly sat down in the furthest seat she could. As they started to talk about everything she did not care about, she glanced out the wall of windows to watch the trees sway in the light breeze.
It wasn’t like this was a damn human wedding. They followed a more Pagan-style celebration. Everything was simple, organic, and natural.
So what other damn details needed going over? How could they not see that this was painful for her?
How many times had they been here over the last two weeks? She was annoyed and tired of their presence.
She only had two days left of freedom. Couldn’t they just leave her alone?
“Leila, are you even listening?” Olivia snapped.
Leila glanced back at her with a blank expression. She was holding a white dress. Where did that come from?
“Yes, what?” Leila snapped irritably.
She had to keep herself from looking at her mother’s disapproving expression.
“Don’t you care at all? Most females would be thrilled to be mating an alpha of Gregor’s power and influence,” Cecilia chimed in.
Leila said nothing, lest she regretted it.
It is for the pack.~ Joana selflessly did this. I can too,~ she began repeating in her head. It was the only way she was going to get through this.
“Get up. We need to see how it fits,” Olivia said firmly.
Leila stared at the dress with disgust. Not because it was ugly, but because of what it represented.
I’ll be living with my sister again, Leila added in her head to try to quell the rising panic. Olivia emitted an exasperated sigh when Leila did not immediately comply and turned to Adelina.
“How have you let her grow up so disobedient to her elders? A proper alpha female would ensure the obedience of her females, especially her own daughter,” Olivia said disdainfully.
Leila chanced a glance at her mother. Although Leila knew her mother must be furious, she did not outwardly show it.
Adelina always remained composed; she was a true alpha female through and through. Leila on the other hand had trouble hiding her emotions. She ground her teeth.
This female was insufferable.
“You know how young alphas are, it takes them time to grow into their restraint. One shouldn’t overly suppress them. Those who learn naturally through their own mistakes make for better alphas,” Adelina said evenly.
“Oh come now. Strict discipline early and often, that’s what makes a restrained pup. Alpha or not.” Olivia continued laughing as if what Adelina had said was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.
Adelina’s face remained calm. Leila just stared at the female as if she were crazy. It took Olivia a moment to calm herself.
“Now Leila, enough with the attitude,” Olivia said with a seriousness that belied her previous laughter.
Her face became dangerous.
“We don’t have much time. It was a marvel we managed to get this all done in just two weeks,” Olivia said firmly.
“And I would hate to have to send word home that you were uncooperative,” Olivia finished.
An obvious veiled threat.
The room just grew more uncomfortably tense. The three idiotic females didn’t seem to notice, or maybe they just didn’t care, but their Ruguru enforcers did.
They had brought along four; they stood at the edge of the room, their eyes diverted from them out of respect.
All were rather large with a look of intimidation. But they paled in comparison to who stood in the other corner of the room. Occasionally, they would cast a nervous glance at Beryx.
Beryx could easily take all four of them without even dropping a sweat, and they knew it.
He was her mother’s enforcer. Six-foot-eight, blue eyes, reddish-brown hair with a full thick beard. He was a dangerous male.
To anyone else, he was a bulky, frightening nightmare, but to Leila…she always thought he looked like a great big teddy bear.
Traditionally, the alpha female’s enforcers were the strongest in the pack, and Beryx was no exception to that. He had been her mother’s enforcer her entire life, so Leila knew him well.
He was like family to her too.
Leila glanced briefly at Beryx. She could tell he was on edge; his eyes were focused on the unwelcome enforcers.
All he needed was Adelina’s word and they would all be dead. But that would just incite a war that they would lose.
They would lose everything. Their home, their autonomy, and likely their lives.
Gregor had well over five thousand wolves, probably more, in his pack, spread throughout his six territories, run by gammas.
They had only one-hundred and six, most of which were young or elderly. They could win a battle, but not a war.
And if they offended the Rugurus, all the Ruguru allies would be forced to be against them too.
They would have nowhere to hide. The Rugurus had ties to packs all over the world. With that thought, Leila took a slow breath.
This is for the pack. This is for the pack.
She stood and Olivia handed her mother the dress. Leila yanked off her sweater and jeans and let her mother help her put it over her head.
Not that she needed help. It was a simple white dress, flowing and loose. Their kind did not wear anything close to human gowns. They stuck to a natural Pagan style.
Leila frowned at herself in the floor-length mirror as the three annoying females began to chatter. She barely heard a word.
“I think we will have her hair down. She has such beautiful hair,” Olivia chimed in.
Adelina gently started to undo her thick braid. Leila just stared at herself in the mirror. This was becoming far too real by the moment.
She felt the twisting sickness in her gut.
In three days, she would have to lay with that animal. Her sister’s monster of a mate. That twisted excuse for an alpha.
Who would do this to their mate? Take a second? Even if Joana had no regard for him, it would still hurt her.
“Our pack is eager to hear the good news about an heir on the way. We are hoping for the best this blood moon since your sister has been such a terrible disappointment,” Olivia said cheerfully.
Leila was snapped out of her thoughts. The rage boiled hot. Very very hot.
Who did this female think she was?
The only thing keeping her in check was her mother’s hand. She squeezed her shoulder in warning. Leila took a slow breath.
For the pack. Live with my sister.
Olivia moved in front of her to look her over. Leila glanced away. It was painful even to look at that female.
“I bet you’re happy you won’t have to go through another Blood moon alone,” Cecilia said cheerfully as she idly fiddled with strands of Leila’s loose hair from the other side of her.
Leila had to forcibly restrain herself from snapping at her. Her wolf didn’t want her touching her.
Leila started to feel claustrophobic.
Thankfully, they stepped away from her to see what she looked like once her mother got her hair down and was brushing her fingers through it. It was practically down to her waist.
Leila reluctantly looked to the mirror, and this time, she let herself look at the dress.
Although it was pretty, it was not something she would have ever chosen for herself. It was not “her.” Leila took a slow breath. This was supposed to be a happy time, but it had all become so perverse.
Leila heard others coming down the hallway that led to the kitchen. She glanced up in the mirror just in time to see the reflection of her age-mates moving down the hallway.
Leila gritted her teeth and braced a hand against her stomach when her pale green eyes fell on the tall, muscled brunette with light blue eyes. He towered over the others. Maturity had done him well.
A mixture of emotions flowed through her. How much things could change in just two weeks. She thought she would be planning her ceremony with him. Not with a male she detested.
Two weeks ago, she had looked forward to her future.
Now, she felt she had no future.
Emil paused and glanced over, as if on instinct. Their eyes met in the mirror and Leila’s breath caught. His expression darkened and he quickly turned and continued on.
Leila felt like she might throw up. She felt like the walls were suddenly closing in. Did it just get incredibly hot in here?
“Isn’t this exciting? It’s time we start thinking of the future of our pack and especially yours. Your first-born son will be both our leaders, our packs will be united,” Elodie said happily, her hands clasped together.
She almost looked emotional. Leila had to focus on breathing. She could barely listen to her.
That is not what her pack wanted. They wanted their autonomy. That was the agreement when her grandfather had made the arrangement for Joana, and even then, the Rugurus reneged on that deal.
Her grandfather had made the arrangement for the previous alpha’s son. Not Gregor.
But when they arrived to honor the agreement, the previous alpha and all his heirs were dead. And Gregor had taken alpha. More like stolen it.
An entire alpha line wiped out.
Leila never knew the details of what really happened—she had never cared enough to ask.
It was never part of their agreement for her pack to join with the Rugurus. But now that they were taking Leila, their last alpha heir, they had no choice.
Olivia’s hands on her neck made Leila flinch. She was brushing back her hair. The feel of her hands on her made Leila’s skin crawl.
“Since I am going to be your mother, I feel I can speak candidly with you, do you agree?” Olivia said.
Leila didn’t think it was possible to feel any sicker. She tried hard to keep her breathing even. Olivia was old enough to be her grandmother. Gregor could be her father.
“Uh…fine?” Leila managed to get out through a clenched jaw. All she wanted to do was run away.
“You need to lose some weight, spending so much time with those humans has not been good for you,” Olivia spoke seriously.
Leila glanced down at herself in the mirror. Although she had a body that humans would envy, she knew she was considered far too big for her kind.
Most of the females of their species had lithe bodies and small chests. She knew she carried a tad more weight than what was normal for them, but she liked the way she was.
She was never once self-conscious about it.
Their race did not care for beauty in the way the humans did, they cared for breeding traits, strength, and bloodline. Their scent carried all of that, but it did not mean they didn’t admire those blessed with beauty.
Joana was a gorgeous female, in every possible way, and people noticed her wherever she went.
Leila would never compare to her. Joana possessed all the feminine qualities that both the humans and her kind admired.
She was tall, lithe, and graceful, and her face was soft and feminine, with striking blue eyes and perfect symmetry.
Leila was on the shorter side for their species, only five foot eight—two inches shorter than her sister—and she certainly didn’t have the grace or lithe figure.
Joana took after their mother, a beauty in her own right. Though worry had certainly aged her mother beyond her years, she was still beautiful.
There was no mistaking that Joana was their mother’s daughter. They could be clones.
Leila on the other hand took after her father. Or so her mother told her. All she had for reference was a tiny, faded photo in her mother’s locket.
Leila had a far plainer look than her sister, with her father’s pale green eyes. “Cute” was probably the highest honor she would get from the wolf communities.
Leila’s body type was an ideal one in the human world.
Her sensitive hearing caught what the humans said about her, often “hot,” or other more vulgar things by some males. But to her kind, her breasts were far too big and her hips and bottom too pronounced.
Wolves did not particularly admire curvy traits in an unmated female. Females only flared out like that after a few pups and even then not to Leila’s exaggerated degree.
Not that it didn’t happen, it was just not normal for them. But even if Leila lost a little weight she doubted it would make much difference. She carried it well.
But because of her blood, she would be coveted as high-quality breeding material no matter what she looked like.
Leila hated it.
“Why? Aren’t I just going to be pumping out babies anyway?” Leila snapped.
It was all becoming too much. She could only pretend to be compliant for so long. Leila made fists at her sides. She was starting to shake with rage.
“Leila!” Olivia snarled.
“Leila…,” her mother warned. Leila realized quickly she couldn’t do this anymore.
She turned and ran.
She needed to get out of there before she did something she would seriously regret.
It took everything in her power not to rip the dress to shreds. Instead, she yanked it off over her head and tossed it aside as she leaped off the porch.
Leila shifted mid-air. She felt her bones twist and morph and fur sprout out over her form in a thick brown pelt. Leila didn’t miss a stride as she darted for the territory line in an all-out sprint.
Leila was back by the lake. She had missed lunch, but she did not care. She had no appetite. Thankfully, no one came after her.
Her body ached with how hard she had pushed herself.
She had skirted their territory and had run hard for over an hour. Leila knew full well she shouldn’t be this tired from that. With everything else she had going on in her life, she had let herself get soft…
“What are you doing here?” Leila snapped with annoyance at the other’s approach.
She had heard him coming from some distance. Heat did that—heightened all her senses beyond what they should be—and if there was anyone she did not want to see right now, it was him.
The Ruguru’s scent offended her.
“You know what I’m doing here,” Elliot said matter-of-factly. Leila cast him an annoyed look.
“I meant here, and not out ~there~,” Leila snapped. Out of all the Ruguru enforcers, he was the only one who came to bother her face to face.
“I heard you caused some commotion and gave my companions a good amount of exercise,” Elliot said with a chuckle.
Leila said nothing.
“I come in peace; I have something from your sister,” Elliot said. Leila perked up a bit as her eyes immediately found the small box he carried.
“She said it was for your birthday, and she’s sorry she couldn’t come,” Elliot said.
Leila stared at the box with a mix of emotions. He offered it to her, and she carefully took it. By the scent of sugar, flour, and banana, she already knew what it was.
But her sister’s scent was missing. Joana must have just had someone make it for her.
Her sister was never able to develop any worthwhile kitchen skills. It was the only thing Leila had that she didn’t. It was the only thing Leila was ever able to tease her about.
“Is it your favorite?” Elliot asked. Leila frowned and did not answer. They usually baked together, so Leila could make sure she didn’t screw it up.
“Not as much meaning if she’s not here, though, eh?” Elliot asked. Leila did not look at him.
“You can go now,” Leila said firmly as she set the box aside.
She nearly jumped as Elliot dropped his jacket over her shoulders and sat down beside her.
“You know I’m not the bad guy,” he said sincerely.
Leila scrunched her nose and reached up to rip the jacket off her. His scent was terrible. She was more sensitive with her approaching heat.
Her mother told her only those worthy of mating her would appeal to her, and he certainly did not.
“Leave it. Trust me. You are very hard to be around right now and that helps. Also…it’s cold,” Elliot said.
Leila stopped and looked over at him. Elliot had dark hair and brown eyes, and like all enforcers, was big and heavily muscled.
“Your pack celebrates birthdays?” Elliot asked as he tilted his head toward the box.
Leila shook her head.
“No, it was just a sister thing,” Leila said vaguely.
No pack that she knew of celebrated birthdays like humans.
She always figured it was because with their heat cycles being brought about by the equinox moons, nearly all wolves’ birthdays fell in the same two months. April and October.
But her sister always made a big deal about Leila’s birthday.
Joana said their father loved celebrating their birthdays, and she was keeping up his traditions. It was one of many of the special sisterly things they shared.
Joana knew their father; Leila never got the chance.
Her birthday was March 24th. It was unusual to have such an early birthday. Leila had been premature by several weeks.
Their kind’s gestation was just over seven months. Her mother had been under a severe amount of stress at the time. Adelina had lost her mate while Leila was still in her womb.
“You aren’t going to even open it?” Elliot asked.
Leila was getting annoyed. She grabbed the box and shoved it into his chest.
“You have it, it’s a bananas foster cupcake,” Leila said. Elliot shamelessly helped himself.
“Wow, this is delicious,” Elliot said as he licked up the excess whipped cream that coated his fingers from his ridiculously big bite. He had basically shoved the entire thing in his mouth.
“How long are we planning on sitting out ’ere?” Elliot asked with his mouth full.
“As long as I want. I’m still able to decide that, right?” Leila snapped back. Elliot quirked a brow as he finished the bite and swallowed.
“Feeling a might bit touchy? Heard you insulted our envoy,” he asked. Leila turned away.
“Just leave me alone,” Leila snapped.
It went silent for a time, but he did not leave.
“You do know it’s just a mating right? You are acting like your life is over,” Elliot said.
“It’s not?” Leila growled. Why was he even talking to her?
“That’s dramatic,” Elliot said.
“Can you go away?” Leila asked.
“I just got back to the territory. Can’t you let me sit for a moment? This back-and-forth thing is exhausting,” Elliot countered.
Leila wanted to roll her eyes. Even though she always had six enforcers following her, she knew they rotated out.
Elliot was the only one she bothered to learn the name of, although it was more involuntarily pushed on her by his unwelcome chattiness over the last few weeks.
“Our pack isn’t so bad,” Elliot said.
“So you condone what your alpha is doing?” Leila snapped.
“Yes,” Elliot said simply.
It made her blood boil. She never asked him about it, but now that it was looming so close, she had the sudden urge to.
“How can you be okay with this?” Leila asked.
“He’s our alpha; you’re a pureblood, and we need an heir. Your pack made an arrangement with ours; we give you land and the full protection of our pack, and our alpha’s blood joins with yours,” Elliot said simply.
“My sister is his mate. That was the agreement, nothing more. And it wasn’t even for Gregor,” Leila snapped and looked away.
She threw a few pebbles angrily into the lake. Small fish popped up, probably expecting the rippling water to be an insect.
“That may be. But your grandfather still agreed to the altered terms when your family got here. He could’ve said no,” Elliot said.
That was eight years ago. How did that feel like so long ago now? Joana and she were five years apart. Leila was only ten when they had come.
She hadn’t paid any attention to their political affairs at the time. Gregor and Joana’s engagement had lasted three years until Joana turned eighteen. Up until then, Gregor had not interfered with them at all.
“Still…I find it sickening your pack hasn’t even waged a protest,” Leila said angrily.
Their alpha taking two mates? That was not their way.
“Your sister is barren; we need an heir. Packs have done this for many years when a pup wasn’t produced in the first five years of matehood. You can’t be oblivious to this.
“Your pack agreed to give us an heir, not just a mate for our alpha. It’s both. It’s just lucky your family had you to complete the obligation, otherwise things may have got messy,” Elliot said.
Leila’s temper was rising.
“My sister’s not barren. You know that everyone knows that,” Leila growled.
Females who were barren had a slightly sour smell. Joana had the typical fertile scent of any female her age, maybe even a little more so.
“Maybe it’s your alpha that can’t get it up,” Leila said furiously.
“Don’t speak ill of your future mate and alpha.” Elliot’s tone became serious.
“I doubt he could even hold my bond. It’s a miracle he is able to keep Joana’s. They didn’t say it, but everyone knows it’s why he sent Egnel back,” Leila said with great bitterness.
Her grandfather had often said how shocked he was Gregor was able to keep Joana’s loyalty. An alpha bore the great burden of carrying the links of every pack member within themselves.
Purebloods had unimaginably heavy bonds to those who did not carry their bloodline. Only the worthiest of alphas could create and keep a subordinate bond with a direct descendant.
It’s why the previous alpha’s son was even considered at all—not Gregor who had somehow stolen it. The previous alpha was said to be from a very long line, one with strength behind him.
Gregor was at best a subpar alpha with only minimal alpha blood from his maternal line.
Egnel was supposed to keep Joana as his charge, even as she switched packs.
But two days later, he was sent back. Only her grandfather knew why. Egnel would never tell her. He was assigned to her mother after that.
Elliot sighed deeply.
“So, what’s the story with this place?” Elliot asked. “You come here quite often.”
He was clearly trying to change the subject. Leila considered not indulging him, but she knew from experience that if she didn’t answer his questions he just became more annoying.
“My sister and I used to come here,” Leila said. She was still seething, but she was trying to calm herself down.
“You have a close relationship with her?” Elliot asked.
“Yes,” Leila snapped. Normally she could just escape back to the house when he got talkative, but that was not a place she wanted to be right now.
“I’ve never seen you visit,” Elliot continued.
“It goes both ways,” Leila said. Joana had not had time for her in years.
“She’s an alpha in training, it’s only natural you would have to go to her more,” Elliot said with a scolding tone.
“He would never let us be alone,” Leila said with great bitterness.
She remembered vividly the few times she had visited her sister. How he was always lingering there…
It had bothered her. More than bothered her.
Her wolf was constantly alert around him like it was in the presence of danger.
“She is his mate and our future alpha female. It’s only natural for him to be protective,” Elliot said.
What she had seen wasn’t protectiveness. It was an obsession.
“I don’t think he treats her right,” Leila said.
She knew she should not be so candid with the accusation, especially with Elliot. That was his alpha. But he was weirdly easy to talk to.
No one else bothered to talk to her anymore. It was like she was some doomed sacrificial lamb they had all given up on.
“How could you know that?” Elliot asked.
He did not seem defensive, just curious. Leila looked away from him.
The vivid memories of her and her mother questioning Joana about it over the years played in her mind, but she always told them she was fine. Two years ago Joana told them to never ask again.
She had respected her sister’s wish.
“Because I know my sister. She hadn’t been the same since mating him,” Leila said seriously.
“People change, she is mated and has a lot more responsibility now,” Elliot offered.
“They don’t change like this. She seems miserable all the time,” Leila said.
“You are looking for things to criticize. That would go against our very nature, you know that. And my pack are not barbarians.
“No one would get away with treating their mates poorly, not even the alpha. We have an elder’s council. If Joana was truly mistreated, all she need do is lodge a complaint,” Elliot said.
It was a topic their kind would find hard to believe. Mistreating a mate truly did go against their nature. Even in loveless matehood, the bond elicited overwhelming protectiveness.
“Then how come they don’t have caretakers?” Leila questioned.
“They have one that helps them once a week, and I heard your sister insists on doing everything,” Elliot said.
“She would never do that. My sister can’t cook worth a damn. She hates cooking. It’s the only thing I’m better at,” Leila said.
“Leila…,” Elliot began.
“I stand by what I said. Something isn’t right,” Leila countered.
The air settled awkwardly around them. For a time, they said nothing to each other. They just sat in uncomfortable silence.
Almost as a respite, a group of younger wolves ran by just at the edge of their senses, at least a few miles into the woodland. The distraction lifted the unease as they both glanced over.
Those around her age often went for runs together. Leila looked back to the lake, and another uncomfortable silence ensued.
“Must be lonely being an alpha,” Elliot said. He had yet to look away from where the others had just run by.
Leila frowned at him. What was he even talking about?
“I get it,” Elliot said.
“What?” Leila asked with annoyance.
“When you’re young, and the world is still a carefree place, you get a taste of that friendship. Then you all grow older, and your status starts to mean something.
“They pull away, get closer with one another while you drift further to the outskirts. It’s not their fault they can’t relax around you, you’re to become their future leader. They can’t let you know all their secrets.
“It happens to all alpha children. I’ve seen it. The only difference is other packs have ties to their surrounding packs. It’s why the children of alphas become such close friends.
“They’re an exclusive member of a club no one chooses for themselves. Those friendships play into pack politics when they eventually take over leadership, so that too is essentially a manipulation.
“An alpha’s life is truly not their own. When you are born an alpha, you belong to the pack, not to yourself. It seems like a lonely life. I don’t envy you,” Elliot said.
Leila stared at the water.
She hated how accurately he had just assessed her life.
“You aren’t as dumb as you look,” she said to cut the sudden tension. He chuckled.
“I look forward to our years together,” Elliot said. Leila sent him a questioning look.
“I will be your enforcer once you are mated to the alpha,” Elliot said. Leila frowned.
“Why are you only just telling me this now?” Leila asked.
“It’s not really my place to say. So be sure to act surprised when it’s announced at your mating ceremony,” Elliot said. Leila looked away from him.
It was just another bitter reminder.
“I shouldn’t be talking to you,” Leila said.
Somewhere behind them, she could feel Egnel’s eyes on them. He did not trust the Rugurus. Whenever Elliot approached her, he always appeared.
She knew how much it irritated him when Elliot talked to her. She was not in the mood for another scolding.
“Why not? I told you, I am to be your enforcer when you mate the alpha,” Elliot said again, a bit louder.
Leila had a feeling he was purposely trying to antagonize Egnel.
“I wish you’d stop saying that,” Leila said with more irritation.
“It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not,” Elliot said as he casually leaned back on his arms. Leila bristled.
“You know, it isn’t so bad in our pack lands. We have a lake too, bigger even. It’s quite nice. We have lots of land, and it’s safe.
“Your life will not have to revolve around your mate; you will have all the benefits of an alpha without the actual burdens. Your situation is unique, but it doesn’t have to rule your life.
“You will have plenty to occupy yourself with. You will have your own place, one of the alpha’s guest houses. It’s being renovated for you. You will only have to be with him like that on the blood moons.
“He isn’t to do more than that, as to not disrespect your sister. It’s the agreement the elders came to with him when he proposed the idea of taking you as another mate,” Elliot said.
Leila stared at him with disgust.
How was that supposed to make her feel better? She felt like a concubine.
Intimacy only twice a year, the thought of which made her sick considering who it was, and she would have no chance of having a real relationship. Real mate or not, males were possessive once mated.
Leila doubted she would have as much freedom as he was proposing.
She was going from one lonely life to another.
“That’s nice,” Leila said sarcastically.
A long silence followed.
“Did you love that young male? The one you were going to mate?” Elliot asked out of nowhere.
It blindsided her.
The question stung.
“I don’t want to talk about that, and it’s none of your business,” Leila growled.
Elliot quirked a brow.
“All your business is now my business. I heard before my alpha came to claim you two weeks ago, your alpha was about to announce your mating to him. I need to know if we are going to have problems,” Elliot said.
Leila ground her teeth for a moment as she debated not answering him. But it didn’t seem like there was much point denying it.
“No, not that way. I loved him as a friend,” Leila said bitterly.
“Good, that makes it less complicated, at least on your end. Did he love you?” Elliot asked. Leila frowned.
She realized just then, that she truly didn’t know.
“We’ve been friends since childhood; he was the only one who stuck around. He never treated me differently.
“When my mother gave me the choice of who she and my grandfather thought would make a good alpha, and he was among them…he was the easy choice.
“I could see myself happy with him. I thought maybe love would come in time. I have no idea what his feelings are…or were,” Leila said honestly.
“He hasn’t—” Elliot began.
“He stopped talking to me,” Leila snapped.
She shot him an angry glare. Gregor had not only stolen her future, but he had taken away her only friend.
“I heard he almost attacked your alpha, that’s something. Maybe he had more feelings for you than you think,” Elliot said.
Leila looked away from him. She hated that he had brought up that horrid memory. When her grandfather had announced that Leila would be taken as a second mate to Gregor, Emil had lost it.
He had shifted and nearly attacked their grandfather.
Emil’s father had managed to hold him back. Leila was grateful. It would have been a death sentence.
“I doubt it,” Leila said.
Elliot looked like he was about to argue, but his cellphone rang. He took one look at the screen and quickly answered.
Leila had never owned a cellphone. In fact, she’d never even used one. Her grandfather didn’t trust technology. They had no TVs or computers.
The only thing he allowed was a single landline for business purposes. It was in his office. He monitored everything.
Leila glanced back as Elliot hopped up and walked a few paces back into the forest. Not that it would give him any privacy. Leila could hear everything.
“Hi sweetheart,” Elliot said into the receiver in a much different tone of voice than she had ever heard from him.
Leila heard a very young female’s voice on the other end. A pup. Leila remained quiet during his entire conversation. He only stayed on the phone for a few minutes.
“You’re mated?” Leila questioned the moment he came to sit back down.
She couldn’t help her surprise.
“Seven years and two pups. Why so surprised?” Elliot asked with some humor in his tone.
“Our enforcers don’t mate,” Leila replied simply.
He glanced back at Egnel hovering in the forest. The large male was agitatedly pacing.
“Clearly,” Elliot chuckled. It was quiet for a moment as Leila tossed another pebble into the water.
“Egnel is like family to me, please don’t tease him,” Leila said seriously. Elliot glanced back at her.
“You aren’t the only one unhappy with this arrangement,” he said seriously.
Leila felt like rolling her eyes. She did not have it in herself to pity him.
“Our policies are different; I believe your pack is a bit too old fashioned for the world of today. This isn’t the dark ages.”
“We aren’t in constant territory wars anymore; enforcers weren’t to mate because they would too often leave widows and fatherless pups.”
“Seems silly to keep up traditions that withhold happiness from all your pack members,” Elliot said.
Leila glanced over at him.
“You never smell of your female,” Leila observed.
She had never once caught the scent of another on him. Mated pairs often smelled of each other. It was one of the ways they showed their claims
“Because I don’t see her that often, at least not lately. I had to move my family two weeks ago when the alpha decided to take you as a mate and I got chosen to be your guard. We lived in our Colorado territory.
“I didn’t have a choice in it either. My pups lost their friends, my mate didn’t want to move away from her family. Despite it being a coveted position, it’s not ideal for me. My mate is quite unhappy,” Elliot said.
Leila frowned but kept her eyes averted.
“Once you’re mated to the alpha and you are on our territory, I’ll be able to go home to her and our pups each night and hopefully they’ll start to adjust better. I look forward to that,” Elliot said.
Leila couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of sympathy for him, but it was quickly washed away by the frustration.
Even he gets to have a normal relationship, so how couldn’t he see how twisted her situation was?
“Are your pups male or female?” Leila asked.
“Both female,” he said.
“So you would be okay with it if both your females were mated to the same male? A male like him?” She watched the muscles in his jaw tense. It was clear the implication irked him.
“It is what it is. Rules change when needed. He is the alpha,” Elliot said.
Not a worthy one, Leila wanted to add, but she kept that to herself
“That’s not an answer,” Leila countered.
“It’s the only one you’ll get from me.” He spoke with finality.
Silence returned until finally Elliot sighed.
“It’s natural to miss your home when leaving it. It will fade with time,” Elliot said.
Leila stared at the water for a moment. Her thoughts were so jumbled.
“This isn’t home. I mean, I guess it felt like home when I was younger. We were finally able to relax, not worry so much about where we would have to go next, how long we had in wherever we were, if we were safe.
“Then my sister left and my age-mates pulled away and it became not home. Honestly, I don’t think anywhere has ever felt like home…or maybe it’s just me that feels like I don’t belong…,” Leila said.
“Maybe it’s not the place that mattered to you, but the people in it. You should give our pack a chance, maybe you will like it with us,” Elliot said.
Leila went silent again.
“Is that why you chose to spend so much time with the humans?” Elliot asked.
Leila felt like she should be more annoyed with all his questions, but in her current mood, talking with him was actually making her feel better.
“I’m nothing to them; it was refreshing to be seen for just myself and not what title I have. And…I don’t know, I find them interesting, sometimes I wish I was human.
“Humans my age don’t have to worry about any of this. They don’t get married until much later, they have the freedom of choice in almost everything they do,” Leila said.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Elliot said.
“Why?” Leila asked.
“Everyone has problems. No matter what they are, they have complicated lives just like we do. Everyone has their own obstacles, no matter what species they are.
“If you were human, you would have a whole new set of issues to sort through,” Elliot said.
“I still think it would be better than what I’m facing,” Leila said.
“Speculation never got anyone anywhere,” Elliot said.
Leila stared out over the lake as another long silence passed between them. This time though, it was a more comfortable one. Finally, Leila sighed.
“I love my family and my pack. I know I was born with responsibility to them, but sometimes I feel like there was some kind of mistake.”
“That I should never have been born an alpha. Sometimes I just…I want to run away,” Leila said sincerely.
Elliot’s face turned serious, almost darkly so.
“If you even get that far, there will be no place in the world we wouldn’t hunt you down,” Elliot said in a tone that sent a chill through her.
Leila looked over at him with a furrowed brow. Strangely, his words did not irk her as much as she thought they should. It sparked a strange determination in her.
“And if I did get away?” Leila asked curiously. Elliot did not look amused.
“I told you, you wouldn’t,” he said firmly.
“But…if I do?” Leila pushed. Elliot emitted an exasperated sigh.
“We would be severely punished, and then we would hunt you down anyway,” Elliot said.
Leila stared at him for a time before she glanced up at the sky. It had to be close to two in the afternoon by now.
A weird calmness suddenly came over her.
Maybe…just maybe, she could talk to him. She had never considered that before. Maybe she could convince him to give Joana one more chance.
Maybe she could convince him to give her more time.
Leila stood and shifted. She started running full out to the main house. She shifted back only when she reached the pack’s detached garage.
Leila grabbed her keys from the key box and opened her trunk to dress in some of her spare clothes.
“What are you doing?” Elliot asked the moment he caught up with her.
“I’m going into town,” Leila lied.
Egnel was beside her the moment she said she was leaving, just as she suspected he would be. His large hand was on the top of her car.
“Leila, you cannot leave the territory. Not this close to the equinox,” he growled in Romanian.
She ignored him and quickly got into the driver’s seat. She glared at him in warning when it looked like he was about to keep her from closing the door.
She just had to leave before he had a chance to tell her grandfather or mother.
He couldn’t stop her. He didn’t have the authority. Unless he had an express order from her grandfather or mother, she still outranked him.
Reluctantly, he removed his hand from her door and stepped back. Leila slammed the door shut and put the car in reverse.
Before she could pull backward, Elliot jumped into the passenger seat. He was pulling on his jacket.
“Leila, this is not a good idea…,” Elliot said.
It was obvious he knew she was lying. It was the first time she heard genuine concern.
She didn’t care.
She started down the long dirt road that led to the highway. Their safe haven was a good two miles into the woodland. It was a rocky bouncing road.
“Roll down the windows,” Elliot said firmly.
Leila frowned over at him.
“That or wear my jacket,” Elliot continued.
“I didn’t ask you to ride with me,” Leila said irritably as she rolled down the windows.
She hated this time of year…she was starting to feel self-conscious.
As she approached the highway, Elliot grabbed the steering wheel.
“Stop,” Elliot said firmly.
“I’m doing this—” Leila began.
“No, just let the others get to the cars,” Elliot said.
Leila frowned. She nearly forgot about the other enforcers.
Even though her kind was fast, they still were no match for vehicles. And the Ruguru main pack territory was over an hour’s drive.
Not that they couldn’t run it, it was just an unnecessary waste of energy and would take longer.
Leila waited until an SUV pulled up behind her before she headed out onto the open road.
Elliot was silent nearly the whole drive there aside from one more, “This isn’t a good idea.”
But Leila ignored him.
She had a strange burst of nervous energy. It was the first time in two weeks she felt even vaguely hopeful. Why hadn’t she thought of this sooner?
Leila had never actually talked to him. All the talking went through her grandfather and mother.
Maybe she could reason with him…
But the thought of how he came to their packhouse two weeks ago with an army of his enforcers—the vicious malice in his eyes when he demanded Leila, how he looked so crazed—made her thoughts stumble.
She wasn’t in the room when her grandfather and mother attempted to renegotiate with him. She had no idea what was discussed.
It wasn’t until the next day they announced that Leila would become his second mate.
And this whole nightmare began.
Leila fiddled with the wheel. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea…
No, I’ve committed. If I chicken out, I can always just ask to see my sister. It is my birthday…
“Pull over here,” Elliot said.
Leila frowned but did as he said. She had never gone this way into the Ruguru pack territory before.
“It’s the back way, it will take us closer to the alpha’s house,” Elliot explained.
Leila knew their land was massive. They went through two checkpoints. Elliot did all the talking. Leila did not miss how the border guards looked uncertain and confused.
Leila knew she was breaking all kinds of protocols.
Finally, he told her where to park.
“The alpha knows we’re coming,” Elliot said as he got off his cellphone. “You can’t turn back now.”
Leila knew what that meant: Gregor knew she was here, if she did not meet with him now it would be a direct snub. They started walking up a long stone path. The other enforcers stayed by the cars.
In the distance, she could see the rest of their housing complexes. It was practically a small town.
There was something odd about their pack that she had noticed on her first visit there. They seemed to be more of a mixed collection of wolves rather than a single cohesive type.
They had no particular scent that defined them as a pack like most of their kind, at least not all of them.
Some Rugurus did—she guessed those were the base pack members—but clearly, since their origins, they had become too mixed, too diverse to recognize as one pack.
They had a lot of mixed blood from many, many packs around the world.
There was so much movement and commotion going on, she figured it must be for the ceremony the day after next. An alpha’s union ceremony was always grand.
Leila fidgeted anxiously. The nervous energy inside her was growing stronger. She was starting to feel sick from it.
This wasn’t a good idea.
The closer they got to the alpha’s house, the higher her nervousness began to spike. It was starting to feel like fear.
“Hey, remember I told you about the lake?” Elliot began.
Leila glanced over at him. He was smirking in a reassuring way. Clearly, he could hear her increasing heartbeat and smell her fear.
He started babbling off about the layout of their pack lands and pointing out landmarks. Leila only half-listened, but she found it helped.
“Nathaniel,” Elliot greeted his fellow enforcer as they finally reached the main house.
Gregor and Joana’s home was set apart from the rest of the pack. The enforcer was waiting there for them. Leila glanced up at the house. Even though she had been here before, it felt different somehow…
“We have an audience with the alpha,” Elliot explained.
Nathanial looked in her direction. Leila recognized him as Gregor’s enforcer. There was an unfriendliness about him that Leila did not like.
“Second door to the right,” Nathaniel said.
Elliot opened the door and gestured her in. Leila hesitated only briefly before she followed him inside.
Outward appearance painted a far different picture than the vibe she was getting. Something felt off. Elliot led her to the second door, opened it, and gestured her in. Cautiously, she complied.
She had never been in this room before. It was clearly a room used for formal meetings.
Outwardly, it looked like a comfortable space with a fireplace and many cushioned armchairs, but her instincts were telling her otherwise. Her nervousness just kept growing.
Where was her sister?
“Come here,” Elliot said.
Leila turned around. He was by the window, pointing out a smaller guest house that was detached from the main house.
“That’ll be yours. They should be finished with the renovations today,” Elliot said.
Leila watched a few males and females go in and out with materials and furniture. She was used to renovations.
Wolves were sensitive to all kinds of chemicals; everything they used was natural, which often required more upkeep.
They also used a lot of eco-insulation, mostly wool and cellulose, because of their sensitive hearing. It was the only way to gain even an ounce of privacy from each other within their dens.
“When you said small, you meant small,” Leila said.
It was tiny. Maybe at most, a bedroom and bathroom. She couldn’t imagine there would be much else with that size.
“Doesn’t leave much room for a kid,” Leila continued. It was a poor attempt at a nervous joke.
“Well…your pups will be here, in the main house,” Elliot said, somewhat awkwardly.
Leila stared at that tiny place that would be hers with a bit more abhorrence. Maybe she should be happy she would have her own space.
“Did you not want pups?” Elliot asked.
Leila noticed a slight tremor of nervousness in his tone. Leila glanced over to study his expression. He did not seem at all happy to be there.
Leila started to wonder how much direct contact he’s actually had with his alpha.
“Not like this, and not now. I know it’s not my choice, not really, I would have always had to further my line, but I thought I’d have a few years to get used to the idea.
“And when I did have them, I would have wanted them to be mine. I would have wanted them to be with someone I chose. I would have wanted a say in how they were raised.
“I would have wanted to be their mother, not a brood sow,” Leila said bitterly.
The heated thought momentarily cut through her nervousness.
“I wish you’d stop saying that,” Elliot said.
“It’s true, I’m just a surrogate,” Leila said.
The door slammed open. Both of them jumped. The house was overly soundproofed. Neither of them had heard him coming. Leila spun around.
Gregor was standing in the doorway looking furious.
He had black hair and piercing dark blue eyes. He was a bulky male that stood around six foot six. In no world would Leila ever find him attractive—he was too fierce-looking, too angry.
His eyes too sharp.
A predator is what he screamed. All Leila saw when she looked at him…was danger.
“Out,” he growled at Elliot.
Leila cast him a frantic glance; she did not want him to go! She did not plan on him leaving! He looked at her with a hopeless look.
“Alpha… Perhaps, with it being so close to the blood moon…,” Elliot gently said, his tone very careful.
Leila had never been more grateful to him in her life.
“Are you saying no to me?” His tone was vicious.
Leila felt her heart start to race.
How could she ever have thought this was a good idea?
“No, Alpha.” Elliot cast Leila an apologetic glance.
He bowed his head and quickly left.
He left her.
The room fell into a tense silence.
She was alone with him, and the feeling terrified her.
“Where’s my sister?” Leila asked abruptly in her nervousness before a proper greeting was exchanged. Anger flashed through his eyes.
“She won’t be joining us,” he harshly replied, and his tone made it clear that he was not going to let Leila see her.
Gregor stared her down.
After a tense moment, she offered only a weak dip of her knee and a tilt of her head. She was not his subordinate…at least, not yet.
Even as scared as she felt, the alpha wolf in her still would not bow so easily. The look he gave her was an annoyed one, but he did not push the issue further.
Again, there was thick silence.
Gregor watched her with a severe look of expectation.
Her resolve shrank even more. What had she been thinking?
“I…um, came to ask if you could delay our mating until the fall, maybe… My sister just needs one more season,” Leila said.
She hated how her voice trembled. Where had her confidence gone? Why did he scare her so much?
Gregor’s eyes did not change; he watched her with a calculated look. Another long, tense silence followed as Leila fidgeted nervously.
Why wasn’t he saying anything?
Without warning, he moved toward her aggressively. Leila instinctively backed up, startled by his sudden movement, but he caught her upper arms and yanked her close to him.
Leila gasped in shock; he nearly knocked the wind out of her.
He pressed his hard body firmly against hers as he leaned in to nuzzle into her neck. Gregor growled possessively as he took a deep breath of her fertile scent.
Leila turned her face away and tried to pull her arms from his grip.
Her mind was racing.
“You’re ready. I will not be denied,” he snarled.
Leila’s breath quickened. She tried to jerk away from him, but he tightened his grip painfully. His strength was far beyond her own.
Panic welled inside her as one of his hands released her arm to run down the length of her body toward the junction of her thighs.
She tried to shove away from him again, but his grip just squeezed until she was sure he was bruising her.
“I have to go,” Leila said firmly.
Her heart was racing with fright.
This couldn’t be happening!
“You can’t do this!” she shouted.
Her tone became desperate as his hand roamed lower to between her thighs. At the first rip of fabric that jerked her hips forward, she was headed into full-blown hysterics.
“Please don’t!” Leila screamed as he ripped open her shirt next.
He did not seem to care what she said; she could see the vicious glaze of his wolf in his eyes.
His hand that wasn’t holding her in place was…everywhere. Places she had never been touched and did not want to be touched by him.
A sickening feeling of violation crushed down on her. She could feel the hardening arousal in his pants pressed against her abdomen as his hand gripped her breast hard.
“GREGOR!” Joana growled. Her tone was filled with rage.
Leila’s eyes immediately found her sister, who stood in the doorway. She was already rushing toward them.
“Leave!” Gregor commanded harshly. Joana abruptly stopped, and it was clear she was fighting the command’s effects. An alpha’s word couldn’t be defied without consequences.
Leila tried desperately to jerk away again, and Joana forced herself the last foot toward them. She was quite obviously struggling from defying him. She grabbed Leila’s arm and yanked back, hard.
Gregor’s eyes turned wolf-glazed and dangerous as he shot Joana a furious look. Leila took advantage of his loosened grip and shoved away. His lethal gaze turned back to her.
“Go!” Joana said urgently and pushed her toward the door once she was free.
She put her body between her and Gregor. Leila cast a worried glance at Joana, but her pleading look was all she needed to get the hell out of there before Gregor had another chance.
Leila burst through both sets of doors and ran hard toward the car. Her heart was racing, her mind was numb.
What had just happened?
“Leila!” Elliot shouted as she ran past him. All she could think about…was getting as far away from that monster as she could.
She nearly ran into the car and fumbled with her keys. Elliot quickly snatched them from her. He was panting from the effort of catching up with her.
Leila couldn’t seem to catch her breath, and she doubted it was from the hard run.
Elliot unlocked the car and gently guided her into the passenger seat. Leila numbly sat down. She stared out the front window in shock.
Did that really just happen?
She did not even notice they had started moving and were back on the streets until Elliot dropped his jacket over her. Leila jumped slightly and glanced over at him with startled eyes.
Elliot just cleared his throat awkwardly. Leila glanced down. She had not realized how much her clothes were torn. Her shirt was completely open and she hadn’t put on a bra.
Elliot was trying to hide it from other motorists.
They drove in absolute silence for a time.
“Are you okay?” Elliot asked carefully.
“No,” Leila said. She felt the water in her eyes, but she refused to cry in front of him.
The alpha pride in her would not let her. She was shaking still, but all she could think of was her sister.
What was he doing to her?
She was right.
He was a monster.
“Defend your alpha now,” Leila said harshly.
Elliot said nothing. The tenseness between them became suffocating.
It wasn’t until they were nearly back to her pack’s territory that he finally spoke again.
“You are to be his mate. It’s close to the equinox; you have no idea how hard it is to be around you. Even as a happily mated male, you are frustratingly tempting.
“Alarmingly so,” he added. “You can’t label us the same as humans. We’re animals with instincts first and foremost, and you are to be his.
“He just…he reacted badly,” Elliot continued, but by his tone, Leila suddenly wondered if he was trying to convince her…or himself.
“You’re defending forced bonds?” Leila asked without looking at him.
It was an extremely taboo subject for their kind. Their bonds were a sacred part of their being, and though arranged matehoods were common, both parties still had to be willing participants.
Rape was an unforgivable sin to their kind. Males who committed that ultimate sin were always put to death to free the female from being bound to her abuser.
Even though forced bonds were far weaker than true mate bonds, it was still a bond. It would still prevent a female from mating another of her choosing.
“No, but you’re a pureblood, and you are becoming dangerously tempting. You should have been mated by now with how far your heat has progressed.
“You’re likely to create a frenzy where males would not be able to help themselves. It’s dangerous. You must be mated before the next blood moon,” Elliot said. His tone seemed a bit more sure.
Leila said nothing. So it was her fault for being an early bloomer? It would be her fifth heat—most females her age were only on their second. A female’s heat naturally amplified each year she didn’t obtain a mate.
“So it’s my fault?” Leila said.
“No,” Elliot growled.
He sounded angry and confused. Not that Leila cared. Elliot pulled to a stop off the side of the road.
“Do you want to run from here?” Elliot said.
“What?” Leila asked, confused.
“You’re…um…” Elliot trailed off.
Leila glanced down at herself.
“Oh…uh, yeah,” Leila said as she opened the door to get out.
“Are you going to tell them?” Elliot asked.
Leila just stared at him blankly as she tossed her ruined clothes back into the passenger seat.
“Are you?” Leila asked.
Elliot set his jaw.
Another tense silence fell.
“Do you want me to?” Elliot asked.
Leila did not respond right away.
“No,” Leila said firmly.
It wouldn’t change anything.
They were still at their mercy.
She just shifted and started to run.
Leila made it to the packhouse and darted upstairs. She slammed the door to her room.
Leila had never been so grateful to avoid any immediate altercations. Everyone was at dinner. Her heart was calming down now, and her body had ceased shaking.
She entered her bathroom and turned on the shower. She didn’t even wait for it to warm completely before she stepped inside and started to scrub his scent off her.
The frigid cold was a biting respite to her growing sense of gloom.
She scrubbed her whole body until she was pink and raw.
“Leila!” Adelina burst in.
Leila said nothing. Did Elliot tell them?
“Egnel said you left the territory. What did I—” Adelina yanked open the shower door, but immediately stopped talking.
They stared at each other for a moment as the water continued cascading down over her.
“What happened?” Adelina asked.
She went from her alpha to her mother in one instant flat. Leila couldn’t hide the upset on her face from her own mother, despite how hard she tried.
“Nothing I just…I tried to go see Joana. They wouldn’t let me.” Leila told her a half-truth.
It was how she got away with lying to her mother.
Her mother always knew when she was untruthful.
Adelina’s face turned angry again.
“Leila!” Adelina could barely contain the angry disapproval.
Leila took a slow breath. She didn’t know if she could handle a lecture right now. Not with how she was feeling.
All she wanted to do was throw herself in her mother’s arms and cry and tell her Gregor was exactly the monster they had suspected he was all along.
But she couldn’t do that.
“It’s my birthday and I…I just wanted to see her,” Leila said.
Adelina’s expression softened.
“Leila…you cannot go out this close to the equinox. How many times have I told you—” Adelina began.
“I know,” Leila said firmly and glanced away from her.
After a moment she turned off the water and took a slow breath.
“What time are we leaving tomorrow?” Leila asked bitterly.
She was trying to change the subject before her mother caught on to her mood.
“Early,” Adelina said evenly as she handed her a towel. Leila wrapped it around herself.
They would be staying at the Ruguru pack lands the night before the ceremony. Adelina moved over to sit on her bed.
“Come here. I’ll braid your hair,” Adelina said gently.
Leila gave her an odd look. She hadn’t done that for years. Not since she was little. It took her a moment to see the emotion on her mother’s face.
Leila felt her own start to well, and she quickly moved over to climb onto the bed so she could face away from her. She didn’t want her mother to see her expression right now.
Leila sat cross-legged as her mother towel-dried her hair and started brushing it out.
The nostalgia hit her hard, and it didn’t take long for Leila to smell the salt of her mother’s tears.
“Mom…,” Leila began.
“I’m fine,” Adelina lied.
Leila felt her throat tighten. Adelina took an unsteady breath.
“How was your last day of school?” Adelina asked.
It was clear she was trying to shift focus. Adelina hated that she went to that human school. Leila was always grateful to her for letting her go at all.
“I got into the college I wanted,” Leila said as she absently glanced at her desk.
The papers she’s picked up included a full-ride scholarship, thanks to her honors teacher.
“Leila…,” Adelina began.
“I know, I just thought I’d tell you,” Leila said quickly.
It was a stupid dream and she knew it. Adelina seemed to be taking her time with the braid. Leila knew she should be done by now.
“Sweetheart…you remember everything I’ve taught you, right?” Adelina asked.
Her tone was strange. Leila glanced back at her, but her attention was on the open window. She seemed hyper-aware of the enemy ears they had intruding on their territory.
“Um, yeah,” Leila responded, uncertain what she was referring to.
“It’s just…it might serve you well in the upcoming weeks,” Adelina said.
Leila frowned as her mother tied off her hair. What was she talking about? Her mother had taught her so many things. Before she could backtrack and ask for specifics, Adelina quickly stood.
“Before you get too settled, your grandfather wants to see you. He’s in his office. I still have some preparations to take care of. Try to get some sleep after,” Adelina said sternly.
It was clear she was trying to steer the mood away from tears. She wiped what tears were left from her eyes and took a steady breath. Before Leila could ask anything further, her mother left.
Leila sighed deeply. Her grandfather…
She knew that was coming.
Leila dressed quickly and made her way down to the alpha’s office. She knew how much he hated waiting.
Her nervousness returned.
She and her grandfather had a strained relationship, if one could even call it a relationship. Her entire life he had looked down on her for not being a male.
For not acting like a proper female. For just about everything.
But these last few years she hadn’t seen him much; he rarely left his office these days.
Her mother said he was getting old, and the strain was starting to show. He didn’t like the pack seeing him that way.
“Come in.” Costi’s deep voice held no anger. Leila cautiously opened the door and stepped inside. He stood by his desk, facing away from her.
“You left the territory without permission,” he stated in Romanian.
Leila said nothing. She just kept her head bowed to her alpha. She had learned over the years—it was best to remain silent.
The clinking of ice in a glass made her glance up. She was so distracted; it had taken her a moment to catch the pungent scent of alcohol. Leila frowned.
Was he drinking? It didn’t affect them the same as humans unless it was specifically made for them. They had a much higher tolerance.
By the strength of the smell, Leila suspected he was drinking their alcohol. The kind that would kill a human. And she had never once seen him do that her entire life.
“What were you doing?” Costi asked as he glanced back at her. Leila stared at her grandfather as if she’d never seen him before.
Both he and her father had mated and had children in their mid-thirties, so he was closing in on ninety. Not that that made him particularly old. Their kind usually lived until a hundred-fifty.
But with the life they lived, he was aged beyond his years. Not that it meant he wasn’t still strong, but he was far past his prime. Being an alpha was strenuous.
No male was meant to be alpha as long as he was. When her father had died, he had had no choice but to take it back. The wear was just finally showing.
“I went to see my sister,” Leila replied carefully. Costi’s green eyes regarded her carefully.
“Did you see that bastard?” Costi said with a furious voice. Leila shifted her feet uncomfortably.
“Yes,” Leila said. She couldn’t lie to him. He would know. Costi just nodded in an odd way.
“I thought it would be your father that ruined our pack. He was so careless,” Costi said as he took another long drink out of his glass.
Leila frowned with confusion. She was getting ready for the inquisition. That she understood. But this?
She suddenly felt incredibly uncomfortable.
She had never seen him like this.
“He helped mind you…,” Costi added with a dark chuckle as he glanced back at her.
“Come here,” Costi commanded. She felt the tug to obey and moved forward nervously.
Leila was half-expecting another angry lecture about how if she or Joana had been male, none of this would have happened. Or how Castel, her father, should never have stayed and fought.
How stupid he was, and on and on. His heavy hand lifted and Leila couldn’t help but flinch a bit, but he just dropped it on her head in an awkward pat.
“But it was me,” Costi said.
“I couldn’t protect my mate…,” Costi said with a very slight hint of emotion. Leila couldn’t help the shock. She had never heard him speak this way.
“I weakened our pack in that damn war, I was so blinded by rage,” Costi continued. Leila just stayed perfectly still. She didn’t know what was happening.
It was making her very uncomfortable.
“I couldn’t protect my only child,” Costi growled.
“And now… I can’t even protect my grandchildren from a pathetic excuse of an alpha,” Costi continued.
“Alpha,” Leila started gently. He was adding a little too much pressure to his hand on her head.
“You’ve never once called me grandfather, have you?” Costi asked as he removed his hand. Leila said nothing.
“I think your sister did,” Costi said, but he didn’t seem too sure.
“Hm…if Liona was still alive, you’d have got along. She would’ve loved you.”
“You take after her. She was a lot like you, you know… Rebellious. It’s what got her killed,” Costi said, a bit more bitterly as he took another long drink.
Leila just stood there. She felt more and more disturbed.
She knew the story. Her pregnant grandmother died at the hands of a rival pureblood pack that wanted their lands. They dumped her body at the border with her unborn uncle.
They had tried for years to incite a war, but it wasn’t until they murdered his mate and unborn son that Costi went after them with blind fury. Her father was only a toddler at the time.
They won the war, but not without a great cost. It more than halved their pack.
And the other pureblood pack—the only one in existence aside from their own—Costi ordered every single one killed. Down to the last pup.
Now, they were the only ones remaining.
Because of that war, they no longer had the number advantage when the hunters came for them. Her father was alpha at the time. Not many of them made it out, and her father wasn’t one of them.
Leila had never once heard her grandfather talk about it. She only knew of it from overhearing hushed conversations of older pack members.
A long silence followed. He had turned away from her again. Leila wondered if she should just leave, but she didn’t dare to.
He seemed off now, but she knew full well what an angry disciplinarian he was in her youth.
After all the loss they’d had, all the hardships they’d gone through, was it this that had finally broken him? Did her mother even know he was in this state?
“Go,” Costi commanded. Leila didn’t hesitate. She ran all the way back to her room.
Leila lay in bed as she watched the hours tick by. She wasn’t even the slightest bit tired.
The packhouse was quiet now. It was almost three in the morning.
Leila flopped onto her other side and buried her head in the pillow. But her thoughts wouldn’t stop racing.
The worry for her sister, all the frustrations of her situation, the strange behavior of her grandfather, and her approaching heat were making her body uncomfortably hot.
But the primary reason for her sleeplessness was every time she forced her eyes closed, all she kept seeing were those predatory blue eyes.
It brought with it the horrible memory of his unwelcome hands all over her.
It spiked her heart rate and her breathing.
“Leila.” The familiar voice startled her. Leila shot up in bed; she didn’t even hear her approach. How was that possible?
“Joana…,” Leila said in shock. She stared at her sister; there was something incredibly off about her. Joana was nude; her brown hair fell wind-blown down her shoulders.
By the look of her muddied appearance, she had run the entire way there. Leila felt immediately uneasy.
“What are you do—” Leila began.
“We don’t have much time. Just listen,” Joana said.
“Come here,” Joana said. Leila hesitantly slipped out of bed to follow her. A cold breeze was flowing into the room through her open bedroom window.
Leila watched as Joana removed the straps of a backpack from around her shoulders and shoved it into Leila’s hands.
“Everything you need is in there,” Joana said. Leila stared at her with confusion.
“Go,” Joana said and gestured to the window. Leila froze on the spot.
“What—” Leila began.
“You have no idea what he’s like, Leila…what he’ll do to you…what he’ll force you to do. You saw only a ~glimpse~ of what he’s capable of,” Joana said. Leila felt rooted to the spot.
“But…our pack—” Leila began. Her mind was racing.
What was she saying?
Joana smiled, a twisted sort of smile.
“It doesn’t matter. Gregor plans to take them over anyway, very soon. I thought I was doing what was right for the pack too. I was wrong. Our grandfather is a fool to believe a word Gregor says.
“If you flee…it may force him to do what he should have done a long time ago…” Joana paused briefly.
“Break off ties and run themselves.” Joana’s tone had shifted again to a more complacent one.
Leila’s heart began to beat fast. She could hear the ripple of movement coursing through the packhouse. It did not take them long to notice Joana’s presence.
“Go west. If you run hard, and I mean as fast as you have ever run before, you might catch the train that passes through town.
“Ride it until you get out of the state; everything else you’ll need is in the backpack. Follow every instruction I’ve given you. Do you understand?” Joana said. Leila numbly nodded.
“You need to go, quickly. The enforcers who followed me here will be upon us shortly. And you’ll need to shake your own guards,” Joana said urgently. Leila glanced toward the doorway.
She could hear the others bounding up the stairs. Joana grabbed Leila and pulled her into a tight embrace, the moment was brief, and when she released her, Joana shoved her toward the window.
“GO!” Joana said again.
Still Leila hesitated.
“Don’t think. JUST DO IT!” Joana added. Leila shoved her arms through the wide loops of the backpack, far too large for her skin form before she turned and leapt out the three-story window.
She shifted mid-air.
Leila hit the ground hard, her padded paws breaking the fall as she darted into the woodland on all fours.
The moment Leila broke the tree line she heard her mother’s cry of anguish. It caused her momentary pause, but the sound of rustling brush around her kicked in her adrenaline, and she burst into a full-out run.
They were already upon her; she could hear them trailing behind, their fierce breathing and pounding footpads on the dirt ground.
She pushed herself faster, already feeling out of breath. She should never have allowed herself to grow soft! There was no turning back now.
If they caught her, she didn’t know what they’d do.
She continued to push herself harder and harder, slowly putting distance between herself and the eight wolves behind her.
The whistle of a train sounded in the distance, and it spurred her on all the more.
She was steadily putting distance between them now; the sounds of their footfalls were growing fainter and fainter. Leila burst out of the tree line onto the open plain.
Finally, she could see the train. Leila ran with all her might. She felt as if her heart may burst.
Just as the final train car was about to cross the threshold of the narrow bridge, she leaped onto the ledge and shifted just in time to grasp the railing with human hands.
Leila struggled to catch her breath and glanced back behind her. She saw the oversized wolves dart from the trees.
They stopped short as they reached the rickety bridge and watched her with furious eyes as the train peeled away.