She lay beside him staring blankly at the ceiling. The deed was done. They were mated. It didn’t matter that she had no love for him nor he for her. Political alliances were more important than feelings, or so she had been told. That fact was cold comfort right now as her heart broke within her.
Beside her, he stirred and she sensed him rolling over, his amber eyes staring at her. She made no move to look at him and instead tried to steady her breathing. It was no use. As she inhaled, her breath quivered betraying her emotional state. Despite blinking rapidly, a stray tear trailed down her cheek.
The covers rustled beside her and then she felt his finger move across her face catching the droplet. “I’m sorry, Elise.” Kane’s voice was deep yet gentle.
“It doesn’t matter.” She answered quietly, still staring at the ceiling. What he was apologizing for she was unsure. The situation was as beyond his control as it was hers. She swallowed hard. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“No, it couldn’t,” he agreed, sighing heavily. His arm slipped around her waist and drew her closer. She let her cheek rest against his muscular chest, too spent to protest; the sound of his steady heartbeat was faintly comforting. “I wish I could have given you more time to get to know me first, but the Elders wanted our union sealed immediately.”
She nodded, her mind agreeing even though her heart cried in protest. The good of the pack won out over that tender organ; the fact she loved another—Bryan—a moot point.
Closing her eyes, scenes from the past day flashed through her mind...
She’d just returned from a run with Bryan where they’d frolicked and played in the cool shaded woods that surrounded her home. He’d been her best friend since they were pups and recently the friendship had grown into something more. Bryan had hinted that he would ask her father for permission to become her mate and she’d been thrilled at the idea. Many of her friends were already mated and, as her nineteenth birthday approached, she was becoming restless, eager to experience bonding with another, but her father had held off choosing her a partner. Naively, she’d thought he was waiting for her to find someone who suited her.
Now she acknowledged that was never the case. While her father loved her, he was first and foremost their Alpha and had to put the well-being of the pack ahead of all else. Her older brother and sister had mated with packs to the north and south. With the sea at their back, it was only to the east that an alliance was needed. When Kane became the new Alpha of that territory, the Elders determined that a union between the packs was needed to ensure continued stability.
That day, as she returned laughing at something Bryan had said, Jake, her father’s Beta, had greeted her at the door. “Elise, you’re needed in the assembly room.”
Something in his tone of voice warned her that all was not well. With a wave to her friend, she followed Jake curious as to what could possibly require her presence. The assembly room was used on occasion for general pack meetings, but usually her father and the council of Elders dealt with all important issues.
As she pushed the door open, a cacophony of emotions hit her; excitement, worry, curiosity. She puzzled over the strange mixture of moods while scanning to see who was present. In the far corner, the Elders appeared pleased as they conversed with another group of older persons, all of whom were strangers to her. Her father, near the middle of the room, had a serious expression on his face and was talking to a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties. She hadn’t encountered him before so, rather than approaching her father, took some time to study this new arrival.
The man was taller than her father, at least six foot four, and powerfully built. His shoulders were broad, muscles rippling beneath his shirt as he gestured to make some point. Dark hair topped a pleasing face, with sculpted cheeks and a full bottom lip. Possibly sensing her inspection of him, he glanced towards the door and his amber eyes locked on hers. There was a hard edge about him, a commanding presence that made her feel as if she were pinned in place. Slowly he studied her from head to foot before his gaze returned to her face. She felt herself flush under his scrutiny. As he flashed a brief smile at her, she thought she caught a glimpse of softness in his eyes, but it was quickly gone and he returned his attention to her father. She sulked. For some reason his apparent dismissal of her rankled.
Her father glanced her way, sighed, and ended his discussion with the stranger. He walked towards her with a scowl on his face. “Elise, you’ve been running again, I see.”
Her reflection in a nearby mirror showed her long brown hair was messy and a faint sheen of sweat gave her sun-kissed skin a dewy look. Noting a smudge of dirt on her nose, she scrubbed it off. Turning towards her parent, she gave a sheepish grin aimed at cajoling him out of his mood. “It was too nice a day to stay indoors.”
“But what did I tell you? It isn’t safe to be out alone in wolf form. It’s hunting season and even though our property is posted, the humans don’t always heed—”
“I was with Bryan and we didn’t go near the edge of the property. We aren’t fools, you know.”
“Ah...Bryan...” Her father frowned, and then sighed again. “Elise, I have something to tell you. As you might know, the pack to the east has a new Alpha. His name is Kane.” He nodded towards the man standing across the room and Elise shot him a glance again before smiling with polite interest at her father’s news.
“He’s come to meet you?” She wondered why she was being summoned. The politics between the packs had never been of concern to her. Her father didn’t involve her in council meetings, yet clearly, she could only assume that the gentlemen in the corner talking to the Elders of her pack must be representatives from the eastern group.
“Yes, Kane is here to meet me...and you.”
“Me?” She couldn’t contain her surprise and a strange quivering feeling began to develop within her.
“Yes, you. It has been decided by the Elders that with a new Alpha in charge, a fresh alliance should be created. Kane is willing. He will be mated to you and our packs will continue to live in peace.”
“Mated? To me?” She knew her mouth was hanging open in shock. Darting a glance across the room, she saw Kane staring at her blandly, his hands behind his back. If her expression offended him, he didn’t show it. She looked at her father, blinking to hold back the tears that threatened to fall. “But... What about Bryan?”
“I’m aware you’ve had your eye on him, but this is for the good of the pack. We need strong alliances so that we can guard against the human threat. And, allied packs allow access between territories and increase the area in which we have to roam.” He stopped speaking and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I know this is a surprise, but don’t worry. Kane is a good man. He’ll make you a fine mate.”
Her mouth had suddenly gone dry and she clenched her fists her sides. Was this how her sister had felt when she had found out she’d been betrothed to a male from the north? At the time, Elise had only been twelve and had been more excited about the festivities than concerned for her sister’s feelings. Now the shoe was on the other foot and she found the fit to be decidedly uncomfortable.
Finding her voice, she began to protest. “But that’s the old way of thinking! Alliances aren’t needed anymore. We’ve gone beyond pack wars, and as for the human threat, most don’t even know we exist!” In desperation, she began to toss out facts and opinions to counter the decree that had been delivered to her.
“Packs co-exist peacefully because of the long-standing tradition of alliances. Unions between packs join us together and ensure respect of territories.” Her father kept his tone even, but she sensed he didn’t enjoy having to explain this to her. He was from the old tradition, as were many in her pack, and expected unquestioning obedience. As the youngest in the family, she’d been treated more leniently than the others; less had been expected of her. Now she could hear the implicit lecture: she should have paid more attention to pack politics, taken an interest in what was going on; if she had, she would already know these things.
He continued to speak. “And the human threat is still real. Not so much that they know we exist, but that they continually try to encroach on our territories. We need to be united and stand firm against selling our land to developers.”
She opened her mouth to protest again, but her father’s stern look had her shutting it, leaving the words unspoken. It was useless to protest. The Elders had decided and the Alpha had concurred with their decision. To go against the edicts of the pack would result in being cast out. She’d lived her whole life in a pack. The concept of being alone was unthinkable, yet the idea of mating with a total stranger was also abhorrent.
“When?” She managed to pronounce one word.
“Tonight. There is no use in waiting. Kane and his council are here. A dinner is being prepared and the rest of the pack is being notified. We’ll conduct the ceremony as the moon rises.”
Three hours and she would be bonded for life to a man she’d never met before today. She could hardly process the thought. Suddenly she realized that someone was speaking to her. Looking up, she saw Kane had moved forward and was standing beside her father.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Elise.” His voice was deep and low, his eyes steady on hers.
Somehow, she managed to croak out a hello. Kane appeared even larger up close and she wished she had more inches to her height. At five foot six inches, she was an average size, but next to the new Alpha, she felt positively petite. Her father nudged her with his elbow and she noticed that Kane had extended his hand towards her. Tentatively, she reached out and took it. The warmth of his skin immediately enveloped her and shot up her arm. Startled, she craned her neck to look up at his face and noted a smile pass over his mouth.
“I think we will suit each other.” He nodded to her father and then gave her hand a squeeze. “I’ll see you later at the ceremony.” Kane looked her up and down again before taking his leave and heading over to where the councils were meeting.
“Elise, I must go. There’s other business to attend to today before the ceremony.” Her father kissed her on the forehead and gave her a gentle push towards the door, effectively dismissing her. “Go and find Sarah. She’s been instructed to help you get ready.” Sarah was Jake’s wife and in some ways like a surrogate mother to her. Hunters had killed Elise’s own mother years ago and her father had never taken another mate.
She considered running away and going into hiding but knew that wasn’t possible. There was nowhere to hide that she couldn’t be found, short of taking a car and driving off, yet even if she did then what? She had no money to speak of, nowhere to go...