Clay threaded a handed through his hair, leaving it disheveled. He looked tired and scared and much younger than he was. “I’d spent so much time talking it up, I couldn’t not bring them here. I already have a couple of cousins who think that I shouldn’t be alpha, considering the fuck-up my Dad made of the position. If I backed out, I would lose any authority I had. There was no way out of it. And now I don’t know what to do. I can’t go back to them now and tell them that the story we’ve been surviving on for years was a load of crap. That we’re not even going to try to fight for this place.”
“But you don’t have to fight. You could have a home here.”
Clay stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. He scoffed. “What, you’re just going to let us waltz in and join you? Sure.”
“We would. Don’t make the same mistake Jonas made, Clay. Take the offer,” Samson said, his gaze never leaving Alicia.
Clay’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Cooper offered Jonas a place in the valley. He offered your pack a home, and Jonas refused,” I said.
“That’s a lie.”
“It’s not,” Samson insisted. “And you can ask any member of the pack who was there. Cooper only acted when Jonas threatened to kill Maggie right in front of him.”
“He threatened to kill you as leverage?” Clay’s face paled. “But you were just a kid, just a few years older than me.”
“He must have been desperate, to do something like that,” Alicia said, her lip trembling. “He wouldn’t have accepted an offer to share, Clay. You know that. He was a proud man, too proud. He wouldn’t have accepted help. He wouldn’t have accepted letting his packmates see him as weak.”
“And I’m supposed to let my packmates see me as weak?” he demanded.
“I’m just saying maybe we should think about it,” she said.
“There’s a way out of this, Clay,” I said. “We can avoid another bloody scene if you would just—”
“Like you would trust me enough to let us live here,” he spat. “You’d watch me like a hawk every minute. No pack can work with two alphas.”
“Well, I’d kick your ass at the first sign of you trying to take over, true. But who says it couldn’t work? Most packs have an alpha couple. We’ll still have an alpha male and an alpha female. We just won’t be, you know, together.”
“Stop giving me reasons why this wouldn’t work!” I cried. “The way we live is changing; we have to change with it. I’m not saying it’s the ideal situation or that there’s not going to be a lot of resentment and hurt feelings we’re going to have to get over, but what other choice do you have? Both packs need fresh genes. You need a place to call home. We can make it work.”
“How are we going to explain this to them?” Clay said, nodding toward the packs.
“It will be our first official joint alpha duty,” I told him.
Clay gnawed on his lip and looked at my outstretched hand as if it was a coiled snake.
“Clay, stop being an ass and say yes, already,” Alicia said, giving Samson a long, meaningful look.
“Please, make the better choice,” I said. “Be a better leader, a better man, than our predecessors.”
Clay huffed a breath and put his hand in mine. “On a trial basis. That’s all I’m willing to promise.”
All of the tension drained from my body as if a plug had been pulled. I smiled. “That’s all I ask. It’s going to take some work, but we can do this, Clay.”
“Can we at least tell my pack that I beat you bloody and then we arrived at a compromise?” he grumbled.
The Monkey Man Swingeth
I WALKED INTO NICK’S KITCHEN, exhausted and drained by yet another conversation with Clay about how we could merge the two packs. I closed my eyes and took a moment to appreciate the blessed silence of the house.
It took a while to sort out the whole “sorry my brother killed your dad” mess, but I felt I could trust Clay. He wasn’t a terribly aggressive guy. He didn’t want attention or recognition. He just wanted what was best for everybody in his family, which I considered the mark of a good leader. Being able to respect him made working with him a lot easier.
It might have been more awkward if Cooper was still living in the valley. Cooper and Clay were cutting each other a pretty wide berth. As open-minded as Clay seemed, I doubted that patricide was a basis for the two of them to be BFFs. We were fortunate that so little time had passed. Blood feuds could take generations to take root in a pack. With so few of our kind remaining, we couldn’t afford that sort of pride and vengeance. Clay understood that, where Jonas had not.
As happy as I was that we were working toward tentative peace, I still had a pit of nagging worry that would surface when I least expected it. Something felt unsettled. To help build the trust between us, Clay had accounted for every member of his pack and their whereabouts surrounding the dates when my truck crashed, my office was trashed, Samson was shot, and Billie died. Dr. Moder had ruled the death accidental on Billie’s death certificate, but she couldn’t make a determination one way or the other. It’s not as if we could send the remains to a medical examiner.
The loose threads were still worrying me. I was missing something, and I hated that. But between the chaos of discovering who Clay and Alicia were and trying to keep our two packs from brawling, I was too exhausted to try to figure it out. I needed quiet. And a house that sheltered fewer than a dozen people. Samson had agreed to keep an eye on things for me long enough for a surprise visit to Nick’s place.
Nick was in the final phases of packing up to make room for the next renter. There were boxes strewn all over the living room. The wires for Nick’s DVD player were hanging forlornly from the entertainment center. Several taped cartons near the door were marked “Books that should not be thrown away upon penalty of junk-punching.”
I sincerely hoped Samson was the one who wrote that.
I shut the door, closed my eyes, and reveled in being able to hear myself think.
“Hey!” I called when I was centered, stripping out of my jacket. “You would not believe my day. I was actually glad to get away from the valley for a while.”
I kicked off my boots, which were caked with mud from the recent thaw. “Mo would probably say that’s a sign of personal growth or some shit. But I think it just proves how sexy you are—”
The silence of the house hit me full-force. The rooms were empty. It wasn’t just that Nick wasn’t responding. He wasn’t there. I couldn’t hear him breathing. I smelled blood, just the faintest trace of it. It was Billie all over again.
I looked back at the kitchen door, which had been unlocked. The front door was unlocked, too. There were no signs of a struggle, no forks and knives thrown on the floor, no torn pillows. I stumbled into the living room, the bedroom, terrified of what I might find. “Nick!” I yelled.
I forced myself to still, to focus on deep breaths, to pull the scents around me into my head and process. Some instinct was pulling me outside, toward the mountains behind the house. I ran out, following the faint scent of blood, trying to gauge how fresh it was, how much there was.
When the trail disappeared into the woods, I phased without bothering with my clothes, leaving a cloud of scraps in my wake. He’d been dragged. I could see the gouges his feet had made in the softening dirt. But who was doing the dragging? There was no other scent, just . . . dryer sheets.
For years to come, the smell of April Fresh was going to make me gag.
I followed the trail up the north face of the ridge, toward the outcropping of rocks that overlooked the town. Nick had talked about rappelling there a few times but had never made the trip.
Please, please, please, I begged. I can’t lose him now. Not now. Please.
The scent was getting stronger, the higher I climbed the trail. And the trees were getting thinner, meaning that I was getting closer and closer to the rock face. I could hear Nick’s heartbeat, strong and steady, through the trees.
He wasn’t scared. This was a good thing. Nick was calm. And if he was calm, the situation might not be as bad as I thought.
I burst through the tree line to see Nick lying on the muddy ground. He wasn’t calm; he was unconscious.
“Stop!” I yelled as I phased to my feet. “Lee, what are you doing?”
Lee had dropped Nick’s limp body dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. He had a rappelling harness strapped on Nick’s body. The harness was tethered to a tree a few feet away. Lee was rubbing the belay rope back and forth over a sharp rock, fraying it, so that when he tossed Nick over the side, the stress on the damaged fiber would snap.
“It has to look like a climbing accident,” Lee told me, his tone like that of someone explaining how to tie a fishing lure. “We don’t want anybody connecting his death with you.”
“Lee, just step away from Nick,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. Cautiously, I stepped toward Nick, but Lee’s head snapped up. I froze.
Even in my gut-churning panic over Nick’s proximity to the cliff, I couldn’t process what Lee was doing. Why? He’d always seemed so puffed up and harmless. I hadn’t seen. I didn’t want to see. How could someone betray me like this again? It almost hurt worse than Eli’s betrayal, because it was so random and needless.
Lee looked up at me, confused, and frowned. “This has to stop, Maggie. I’m going to help you tidy this one last mess up, but then I expect you to clean up your act.”
“What are you talking about, Lee?” I tried stepping closer, my palms upraised in a submissive gesture, but he stepped in front of Nick, cutting me off. He was so close to the edge. All it would take was the slightest push or movement, and he’d plummet off the rocks. I whimpered a little, shaking away the image of Nick’s body broken on the ground. I had to focus on Lee, make him move away, use some sign of dominance to remind him who the fuck he was dealing with.
But at the moment, my hands were shaking so badly I didn’t feel like Maggie Fucking Graham. I felt like throwing up.
“Overall, I think I’ve been pretty understanding about your little quirks,” Lee said, snapping me back to reality. “But really, a human?” His face flushed, darkened; his eyes narrowed. “Did you think I was going to sit by and let you humiliate me like that? Do you know what it was like for me, when members started whispering and snickering about my girl—my future mate—carrying on with a human?”
“Stop saying my name like that!” Lee hissed. “Like I’m crazy! Like you’re trying to talk me down from a ledge. You don’t even know what I’ve done for you. You never appreciate how hard I’ve tried. You never see me. It’s always about you.”
“Just explain it to me,” I said. “Baby, please, I’m sorry. Just explain what I did, and I’ll apologize.” My voice shook as I called him “baby,” probably because it made me gag. But it seemed to calm him, to make him a preen a little, as if this was how he wanted the conversation to go. “What did I do wrong?”
“You never turned to me,” Lee said, exasperated.
“What do you mean?” I asked, stepping back, leading him away from the cliff.
“I wanted you to turn to me!” Lee yelled, pounding his chest with his fist. “I thought that if you could get off your damn high horse long enough to ask me for help, we might finally connect. But you always ran to Cooper or Samson. You never had time for me. And I thought maybe if Samson wasn’t there, in the way . . .”
“Did you take a shot at Samson?” I asked. He nodded. I groaned. “And the brakes on my truck?”