Bind (An Esther Novella) by Claire Farrell

A narrow rip had formed in the thigh of my jeans. I pouted, prodding at my bare skin. “You know what? I think I’ve lost muscle tone.”

Ava Delaney stopped pacing long enough to glare at me, her blue eyes flashing with heat. “Have you been listening to a word I just said?”
Bind (An Esther Novella)
Bind (An Esther Novella) by Claire Farrell
I withheld a sigh and sank deeper into the comfortable armchair to cover the fact I couldn’t hold her gaze. The springs had long gone in the chair, making it easy to retreat into. Everything in Ava’s living room was old—bar the computer desk shoved against a wall—and mismatched, but the place came closest to a home for me. The postcards crowding the mantlepiece had come from all over Europe. Sometimes I looked at the scenery and imagined a life out in some place I wouldn’t be forced to hide my true self. Then again, the rest of the cheap looking trinkets and ornaments decorating the room were likely imbued with powerful magic—my daily reminder that few truly safe places actually existed. “Esther,” Ava said sharply, apparently losing her patience. Not that she had much of that to begin with. Carl stretched out his arm from the sofa to brush his knuckles across mine. “Answering her before her head explodes generally works for me.” “Don’t you start,” Ava said gruffly, but there was no bite behind that bark, not when it came to her best friend. I had been staying in her spare room for a number of weeks, and I wasn’t ready to leave that safety net. Ava had other plans. I stared at the chipped nail polish on one hand for a moment to compose myself. “I was listening.” I exchanged a smirk with Carl before finally meeting Ava’s questioning gaze. If I played my cards right, I could change her mind. I had to. “I just think that maybe… I need more time.” “But this is what we’ve been waiting for! This is your chance.” Apparently, I had played the same card too many times. Ava raised her hands in exasperation and looked to Carl for help. “You try talking to her. Please.” Carl looked uncomfortable, so I shot him a pleading look. Of everyone, the human had to understand. He absent-mindedly brushed his fair hair out of his eyes. “If she’s not ready…” “Carl.” Ava squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, then started over. “Look. I know it’s hard for you to face yet another shifter alpha, especially when we don’t know his agenda yet, but time is with us for a change. His pack hasn’t been here long enough to get influenced by anyone else, and he’s open to negotiations. We can force the issue with him, get him to call off the shifters for good.” I screwed up my nose. “But Phoenix already called the shifters out. If they hit us, he’ll strike back with the fae and the werewolves. The shifters might be mad, but they’re not that stupid.” I hoped. “We can’t rely on Phoenix forever. What do you think will happen if the shifters can’t resist going for us again? If that triggers a war, then we’ll be responsible. We have to get assurances from the new alpha that he has the Irish shifters under control before anyone else manages to interfere. Look at the position you’re in. The Senate need you because he won’t speak to them.” Licking my lips, I nodded. “Yeah, it sounds good. But don’t you think it’s a little suspicious that I’m the one he wants to speak to?” Ava flopped into the seat next to Carl, calming down now that I was actually participating in the discussion. I didn’t enjoy causing her problems, but the last thing I wanted to do was look another shifter alpha in the eye. No, the last thing I wanted to do was even acknowledge that shifters existed. “It makes sense that he wants to speak to you,” she said. “You’re Aiden’s sister. You’ve lived with an alpha. Of course he’s going to want to negotiate with somebody who actually understands how everything works.” “But that’s the problem. I don’t understand. Aiden kept everything from me.” Like the fact he had cheated with fae magic to become alpha in the first place, or that he had been working for an enemy pushing for a dictatorship, or even the fact he was the one who tortured and murdered the latest shifter alpha. And now he was gone, chasing our roots on another continent, and again, I was left behind to pick up the pieces he destroyed. In his absence, the shifters had decided to punish me instead of Aiden. Although, at the time, half of them had been too busying capturing free shifter women to impregnate them to really put some effort into taking me, too. “You’ll make a good representative,” Carl said encouragingly. “You’ve been through enough to speak on behalf of the shifter women who were captured. And they need help to heal them from what Mac did to them. From what we know, their only chance is a true alpha helping them. You can persuade him to come here and at least try. I know you can.” A lump formed in my throat. I wasn’t getting out of it this time. Carl was right, but that didn’t stop the hairs rising on the back of my neck at the mention of another alpha. I had never met him, but he had arrived in Ireland and declared he wouldn’t negotiate new terms with the Senate on behalf of the shifters unless I was the one who acted as a liaison between the two groups. I had been a Guardian for the old Council, sister to a false alpha, traitor to my old pack, and I still wasn’t free. How could I even trust a shifter again? They had accused me of being dangerous because I was untethered to a pack, a loner who might lose control. Until Ava, an outcast herself, claimed to be my alpha and pulled as many strings as it took to help me. My friends looked at me expectantly, fully sure that I would do the right thing. But I was scared, terrified really. Being a shifter had ruined almost everything in my life. I wanted that to end for good. I needed to move on. “What if I refuse?” I lowered my gaze. “I worked for the old Council, and all I saw was corruption and cruelty. We all know how shady the Senate is; they allowed Mac to represent the shifters, and he turned out to be kidnapping and raping female shifters behind everyone’s back, so excuse me if I’m not all happy happy joy joy at the thought of getting involved with those people.” “So don’t be the Senate’s talking doll,” Ava said. “But we desperately need this alpha to acknowledge that neither of us is a threat so we can get on with our lives without having to worry about some idiot shifter screwing everything up.” Her tone softened. “I know you’re still recovering from the operation, but the doctors have given you a clean bill of health. You haven’t had any headaches, and you’re looking so much healthier. There’s nothing stopping you.” Except my fear. I wanted to touch the scars on my head, but I kept my hands on my knees. “You can do this Esther,” Ava said firmly. When Carl took my hand, I knew I was lost. “Maybe Ava’s right,” Carl said gently. “Getting this over and done with might just be the best thing for you, Es. It’s all dragged on for so long like a cloud hanging over you. You need closure. Don’t you want your life back?” But I hadn’t had a real life. Not ever. I couldn’t even begin to explain the thoughts going through my head. I wasn’t just a shifter. I was bear. I wasn’t supposed to feel so afraid. Once, I thought I knew it all—until the real world had been thrown into my face, and I had run instead of standing my ground. “What if…” I said quietly. “Go on,” Carl urged. “What if he tries to take me back into the pack?” I flexed my fingers. “What if it’s all a trick? It wouldn’t be the first time somebody tried to fool us, to fool me. I’m tired of the games. I want everything to go back to normal, but I feel like if I go, I’ll never be free.” Ava knelt at my feet, all frustration wiped clean from her expression. That was her way. She’d lecture, maybe even get angry, but it was gone as suddenly, burning bright and hot, but fast. She was only four years older than me, but sometimes it felt as though she had lifetimes more experience. At first, I’d assumed she’d tricked the Senate to protect me, but maybe her claim of alpha hadn’t been so far off the mark, after all. “I’ll be with you,” she said. “I won’t let him take you. I won’t let him hurt you. Remember, Phoenix promised the same, and a fae promise is sacred.” I made a face. “You’re the only one who trusts Phoenix.” “Then you’ll just have to trust me instead,” Ava said softly. “The shifters were warned off, and they believe the werewolves protect us. Besides, Shay vetted this alpha out. He’s a wanderer, but he’s not a criminal. He likely won’t even stay in the country for long. Things can go back to normal this time, Esther. This is your chance to be free. You have to take it before something else goes wrong.” “When did you get superstitious?” I tried to smile, but my lips trembled instead. “When life kept throwing more at me than I could handle.” Ava grinned, and her face brightened with it. “I’m with you, no matter what happens. I’m not afraid of this alpha.” “You need to start being afraid of something.” Ava straightened, a hard glint in her eye giving her a different look. That had happened a lot lately. She had found some new air of confidence or something. “You live here, and you’re protected. I’m telling you that you are safe, and if anyone tries to hurt you, they’ll have me to deal with.” I shot a grin at Carl. “Is this what having a big sister is like?” “I think she’s slightly more annoying than the average big sister,” Carl said. Ava leaned over to give him a playful thump in the arm. “What’s it to be, Esther? Are you going to do whatever it takes?” I let out an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. I’ll play the hero this time.” “Great. I’ll organise a meeting with the Senate.” “I can make a phone call. You’re not actually my mother.” “I thought I was a big sister,” Ava said, already walking away to call the Senate. “Oh, God. What was I thinking?” I leaned forward and ran my hand over my head, lingering by the scarring. My hair wasn’t growing back. One of my doctors warned me the case of alopecia was due to stress. “She’s going to take over everything now.” “I’ll sneak you out while she’s distracted,” Carl offered. “I could take the day off and tag-along.” “You can’t take the day off for this.” I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll pop in to see Moses. I haven’t been back in a while.” “You should relax. And, hey.” He reached for my hand and gently squeezed. “You can do this.” “Can I?” I said, irritatingly breathlessly. “I wish I could go the rest of my life without ever seeing another shifter. They’re all… broken somehow. Twisted. If this alpha is the same, then something terrible is going to happen.” “There’s no point in being pessimistic. It’s time things started to go right for us.” “The thought of facing them makes it hard to breathe,” I whispered. “I might fall apart.” “You’re strong. We can all see it. If anyone else had gone through what you have over the last two years… I just… I’m in awe of you.” He lifted my chin and forced me to look at him. “I care about you, Esther. When you weren’t here, I missed you badly, and that ambulance ride to the hospital was probably the most terrifying experience of my life. If you meet with this alpha, you can start to take your life back.” His voice deepened. “And maybe when you come back, you and me could go out sometime, together, alone.” He cleared his throat. “On a date.” My cheeks warmed at his earnest tone. Carl was good-looking and kind, almost thirty, had a home and a job, and he was probably the most respectful man I had ever met. There was something inherently good about him, no matter what happened. I liked him. I had always been attracted to him, but everything else had sort of gotten in the way. Maybe a date could be the normal we both needed. * * * The flats looked grim on the outside, but the community within appealed to me. Even the neighbours who hated each other suddenly became a family when under attack. It felt like a pack should be, an extension of my friendship with Ava. The people who gravitated around Ava counted as family, just on a smaller scale. I had received shelter from the outwardly poor community while the shifters had been trying to track me down. At times, I’d felt as though I were going crazy from being stuck there, but I enjoyed returning to visit those I had left behind. As I strolled toward the flats, a group of little boys came out of nowhere to ambush me. “Aw, please, do it this time, Missus,” one said pleadingly. “I can’t.” Their enthusiasm made me laugh. “Your mothers would kill me.” “Just one time,” another said. “You did it before, and we totally missed it.” “You’re just going to have to be quicker next time,” I teased. “Would you lot leave her alone?” A teenage girl pushing a pram past us shoved one of the boys. “She’s not going to strip off and turn into a bear in front of you creeps.” “You shut up and mind your own business!” he shouted back at her. The girl made as though to run at the group, and the boys all scarpered, only hesitating at the closest stairwell to toss insults at the girl who rolled her eyes. She nodded at Esther. “If you ignore them, they’ll get bored bothering you.” “I don’t mind them. Is Moses around, do you know?” “He’s always around,” she said with a sneer. “Can’t get himself a job, can he?” I thanked her and hurried to Moses’s block of flats where I met his mother on the way up the stairs, struggling with shopping bags. “Let me take those, Edel.” The woman protested even as she let me relieve her of her load. “How are you feeling anyway, love?” she asked as we walked up the stairs together. “Good. Better. The doctor says I won’t need any more operations if I don’t miss my checkups.” “Oh, that’s great.” We reached her flat, and she unlocked the door and invited me in. “Benny, Esther is here.” I stepped into the living room. Moses was playing video games with one of his old gang members. “You’re back. Go on home for a bit, Jamie,” he told his friend. “I’ll call you later.” When Jamie left, Moses followed me into the tiny kitchen, telling Edel a neighbour wanted her. I wondered if he was just getting her out of the way. “Everything all right?” he asked as he put the groceries away. “Hiding out. Ava’s on a mission. The Senate want me to visit the new alpha and speak on their behalf.” “Fuck the Senate,” he muttered. “What do you want?” “I… want to help the kidnapped women. This new alpha could do that.” And I wanted to run and hide rather than face another alpha. Moses sighed as he held up some brown rice in his hand. “What did you do to my ma, Esther?” I giggled at his pained expression. “She made me skinless sausages yesterday. Skinless. Like, what the fuck was the point?” “She’s trying to make sure she doesn’t outlive you.” He cackled. “Some friend you are, bear.” I ran a hand over my head. “Not much of a bear.” My phone beeped with a text message. I checked it and winced. “Great. I’ve to head to meet with the Senate tonight. See what they want to feed me next.” “But don’t let those arseholes push you around. You’ve been through enough.” He squeezed my hand. “There’s always a place here to hide if you want it.” “Thanks,” I said, warmed by the gesture. “But the sooner I do this, the sooner I get to forget about this shifter pack altogether.” * * * I thought about running back into the shadows when I reached the meeting place and saw the Humans First protesters waiting outside. The group had grown when facts about Mac, the old alpha, came to light, and the protesters were rapidly becoming more vocal. I took a few steps back, contemplating how to avoid the group before they noticed a shifter was around—especially a shifter who had been accused of murder, even if I had been cleared of the crime. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this so easily,” Ava said from over my shoulder. I jumped and turned rapidly. “How do you manage to sneak up on me like that?” “You’re preoccupied. I wasn’t sure if you’d show up.” “Only because your text said you’d be here with me. I hate those protesters, Ava.” “Come on,” she said. “Don’t let them see any fear. They feed on it.” I followed Ava to the doors where some Integration Agents were holding back the crowd who shouted at us as we passed them. I ignored them, choosing to focus on Ava’s red hair, a beacon leading me through the storm of hate. Inside, I fidgeted in an old-court room next to Ava as we waited. “I hate this place, too.” “You’ve every right to be here. Don’t let those idiots outside make you think otherwise.” I glanced at her in surprise. She hadn’t appeared to be outwardly angry, but she sounded pissed. The Senate soon arrived, one by one. Phoenix was last, and he gave Ava a secret smile which he quickly concealed. I glanced at Ava in surprise. Her cheeks had reddened. What the hell was that? Definitely something to chew over with Carl later, if we had time. The Senate wasn’t exactly scary, but Mac, the alpha desperate to torment me, had been one of their own before his death. It didn’t say good things for the rest of the group. Phoenix was the father of the twins Ava had befriended, and while Lucia was a touch creepy, I liked Lorcan a lot. We had fought together during a bad situation in Liverpool, and that created a kind of bond. But Phoenix was… odd. Willow proclaimed to defend the innocent and weak, but she had allowed the Senate to vote on executing the werewolves out of existence until Ava and Phoenix stopped them. Mick was a police commissioner who replaced another friend, Shay, but he was so out of touch that I couldn’t imagine him lasting long. Daimhín, the Irish vampire queen, could never be trusted. Jack was another human with the tendency to either bully or cave, while Layla was an enemy based on her association with a succubus who had tormented Ava and almost killed Carl. Callista was a sister of Illeana, a good friend of mine who had passed away in the line of duty, so she was okay in my eyes. And I had always liked Elathan, but I couldn’t remember the last time he had appeared with the rest of the Senate. Overall, the Senate had less friends than I liked. Acting as their mouthpiece wasn’t appetising. “If Esther is going to this alpha, I’m going with her,” Ava said, taking the lead before anyone could tell us what to do as usual. “It would be stupid for her to go alone, considering the way the shifters have behaved recently.” “This is an attempt to make peace,” Callista said warmly. “And to help those poor women who are still suffering.” “I’ll meet with this alpha for them,” I said. “But then I’m done.” “Perhaps save your decisions until after you meet him, dear,” Willow said. “If she doesn’t want to meet with him, you can’t force her,” Ava said. “He has asked for her,” Layla said. “He wants to deal with a shifter, and she’s the closest thing we have to an alpha, all things considered. We need this to work.” “And I said I would try,” I said. “Anything we need to know before we show up?” “From what we’ve learned,” Callista said, her warm smile enveloping the room and making it that much harder to breathe, “his pack are traditional.” “Like Mac?” Ava asked, bristling. “Not at all,” Willow said urgently. “Forgive me if that doesn’t put me at ease,” Ava said. “You’ll have nothing to worry about,” Phoenix said. “These people are already aware that they’ll have me and the rest of the Senate to answer to. You’ll be safe.” He appeared to look through me. I hoped he couldn’t find memories by holding a person’s gaze. “If I’m to be a liaison, what do you want me to do?” I said, drawing strength from Ava’s comforting presence. “I assume you have something you want me to pass on.” “Only that the shifter women who were harmed by Mac need his assistance. Some of them are out of their minds. We only wish to know if he can help them.” I would have asked that question anyway. “Tell him the old ways are unacceptable,” Mick said in a low voice. “There can be no more kidnappings, no more rape and torture. Those likely to be voted into the next government are speaking loudly about executions becoming a viable punishment here. There hasn’t been much in the way of a dissenting voice.” “I’m a dissenting voice,” Ava said snappishly. “There’s no way we can bring that here and expect it not to go wrong.” I silently disagreed. If Mac still lived, I would have paid to see him publicly executed. “That’s not our concern right now,” Daimhín said. “There are more important issues. Controlling the shifters is one of them. We don’t need any more disasters or paragons descending upon us. Let’s tighten this up and move on.” “I agree,” James said. “Report back to us if you learn anything about these new shifters.” “You want me to spy on them?” I asked, horrified by the idea, despite my distaste for packs. “There can be no free reign anymore,” he said. “The only way to foresee trouble is to dig it out for ourselves.” I shivered. What the hell was I going to discover about this nomad tribe? The meeting continued until the Senate ran out of suggestions. I felt less inclined to meet with the shifters after hearing the thoughts of the Senate. If they didn’t trust the shifters, why should the shifters trust them? And it was hard to figure out what hat I was supposed to wear. Was I meeting with the alpha as a shifter… or something else? Before she left, Callista embraced me. “I haven’t seen you in so long. I’ve missed your beautiful face, Esther.” I self-consciously ran my hands over my head. “Not so beautiful these days.” “Nonsense. If anything, losing your hair has only put more focus on those gorgeous cheekbones of yours.” Callista smiled, and it was hard to think straight. Illeana had never been so hard to be around. “We’re depending on you, Esther. My sister believed in you, and I do, too. You’re more than capable. This new alpha is wary, and rightly so. Make sure he knows we’re not against him. The last thing we want is more violence. There has to be… a civil end to this.” I was only half-listening. I was too busy watching Ava and Phoenix stand close together without touching, looking engrossed although barely talking. There was definitely something up, and it worried me. I had been hurt too many times to watch it happen to my friend, too. 2 Patrick * * * Patrick swung the axe down and split the wood block in two. It didn’t make him feel any better. His sister watched him from the broken tree trunk she had perched herself on an hour ago. She hadn’t spoken a word since then, and neither had he. He set down the axe and wiped the sweat from his face. “You should go home, Mags.” “Are you done?” He glanced at the large pile of chopped wood and shrugged. “Does it matter?” She stood and brushed the back of her skirt. “Don’t let them turn you into a small man, Paddy. You’re supposed to be the one who got away.” “And pulled right back in. Here, wait, and I’ll walk you back.” She lifted her chin. “I’m capable of walking alone.” Ah. “But I’d like the company.” “So you can ignore me some more? It doesn’t have to be like the old days, you know.” “I’m fine.” He smiled until she returned the gesture. She pursed her lips to hide the smile then folded her arms across her chest. “And don’t give me the dimples. You wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t all bothering you.” “I’m allowed to be less than perfect. Come on. Let’s walk together.” She eyed him for a moment before agreeing. They strolled through the forest he had known so well as a child. His memories of the smells never faded, even when his body was far from the place that felt most like home. “When he’d send me to look for you, I’d always look here last because I knew this is where you’d be hiding.” He looked at her in surprise. He’d always been cross with her when she turned up to drag him back to the halting site. He never knew she’d been trying to give him more time. “Why did you do that? The corner of her mouth lifted. “Freedom gives you a certain glow. I would watch you first, before I’d call you home, because it was the only time I saw you happy, the only time you were relaxed enough to feel happy. And I envied you that. I found it for myself when Danny was born, but back then, I barely even recognised what it was.” She looked up at him with a pained expression. “I thought to find it again, but I saw nothing but misery about you. What’s wrong, Paddy? Aren’t you happy? Everything’s the way it should be. At last.” Their grandfather was dead, and Patrick was in charge. Something he’d never even thought to dream of. Mags had done enough dreaming for both of them. “I know you thought…” He sighed. What had she expected to happen? That everyone would return to the pack and live as though nothing had ever gone wrong? “Perhaps I’m just tired of managing the pack only to see it stay the same.” She plucked a leaf from a tree. “Then make it change.” His shoulders hunched. “I thought I was.” “You’re catering to the old crowd too much. I love Peg as much as you do, but we both know she’s trouble. She’s trying to mold you into her own version of him.” “And what would you have me do, sister?” “Be alpha.” She said the words that meant so much as though they were easy. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, his frown so deep it almost hurt. Be alpha. As though it were nothing. What did he know of alpha? His alpha had been a bully and a crook. Patrick had been banished for so long that he had forgotten what it was like to deal with a true pack. And ever since the power had been thrust upon him, the panic had been close at hand, always waiting for weakness. He had taken the pack home, to a place familiar to him to help fake the notion that he belonged again, except he had discovered that there were thousands of shifters throughout the country who needed a leader—an alpha—and all eyes had turned to him. They expected him to step up, to know exactly what to do, but he wasn’t ready. How could he be? Mags nudged him. “I know this doesn’t feel right on your shoulders. I can see it in your eyes every day that I look upon your face, but you’re needed.” She nodded, her step never faltering. Her faith in him had never faltered either—nor her loyalty. Had their blood ties blinded her to his weakness? Because he didn’t feel ready. “Am I really the one we need?” he mused aloud. “And not just by us either,” she continued as though he hadn’t spoken. “It’s a bad time to leave the family to help a few strangers.” More than a few. There would never be a right time either. “We can all go with you.” “The little ones need a break from the road. You know that better than anyone. Danny’s happy here.” She stopped walking and faced him. “Did you tell the Senate no?” He hesitated. “I didn’t refuse. Didn’t accept either.” She drew in a sharp breath. “But you want to help them.” He looked around him, but the forest was no longer his safe place to escape. “It’s not the Senate I want to help. It’s the shifters who suffered from the last alpha’s madness who I need to help.” “We should have come home sooner,” she said. “Would it have changed anything? I don’t know how to help them.” “You’ll know when you get there,” she said firmly. Smiling, he tucked her unruly curls behind her ears. “Maybe you should be alpha, hey?” The severity melted away as a smile transformed her face. “And now you’re laughing at me, boy.” He draped his arm over her shoulder and led her out of the woods and onto a narrow footpath that led directly into the town his pack now called home. “If they send the woman, the sister of the alpha who ran, then I’ll listen to what she has to say and make my decision. I don’t want to tie us to this Senate, but we can’t afford to make enemies of them either. I don’t trust them, and I never will. And if this woman lies to me, then that will make my decision so much the easier.” “And it will be your decision,” she said, and he caught a note of worry in her tone. It was time to inject a little of his will into his voice. “It will be mine alone.” He turned his head to the right and sniffed the wind. “The boys are almost here.” Less than five minutes later, a couple of teenage boys came around the corner, laughing and pushing one another as though nothing in the world mattered. When they caught sight of Patrick, they froze into place, their heads automatically bowing. He suppressed a smile. He remembered being a boy, cowed by the presence of power. Of course, his fear had been for different reasons back then. “Lads, head on and fetch the wood I chopped for the night’s fire. And go easy,” he added as they ran past. They had all the elegance and grace of a newly born fawn. He wasn’t sure how the gangly group managed to stay on their feet. “I see your boy is hiding out again.” He tugged a lock of her hair. “He’s supposed to be out here with the rest of the boys instead of shirking, you know.” Margaret thumped his side in retaliation. “He’s studying. Any of these eejits can pick up the wood you spent the day chopping. What he’s doing is more important. Learning is the only way to fit in to today’s world.” “Is that what you want for him? To fit in?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I want what’s best for him. Would you rather he have your life?” “I would not.” He patted her shoulder and felt her relax. “Peace, Mags. He’s your son. You decide for him, not I.” She shrugged him off. “But I must pretend the decisions are yours when anyone asks.” “Not anyone.” He followed her. “Just Peg.” She laughed. “Brave man, aren’t you?” “Keeping the peace.” He headed toward the halting site. That’s all he had ever tried to do. * * * He watched the children chase one another around the bonfire and delayed his announcement for as long as he could. The news had been playing on his mind all day, but he hadn’t told a soul bar Mags. He remembered his grandfather sitting in the same position, watching his people with shrewd eyes that told nothing of the depths of depravity hidden within. Had the old man ever doubted himself? Even for a second? A shiver ran through Patrick. Madmen never doubted. That was what was so terrifying about them. Ed tried to hand him a beer, but he waved the man away. They had never really been friends, but their similar ages had forced them together in their youth. Patrick sometimes wondered if it pained Ed to obey his childhood friend, but if it did, he showed no outward signs of it. The fire burned, the drink flowed, words of song drifted in the air, and all seemed well. He inhaled the scent of smoke and ash and wished he were back in the forest. The sky wasn’t fully dark, more of a pretty bluish grey than anything else, and as everyone’s stomachs had been filled, it seemed to be a good time to disrupt everything. He stood and lifted his cup. There was no need to say a word. One by one, shifters paused and nudged each other, a silent awareness that the one in charge was about to speak. The last was Peg, chatting from her throne on the steps of her caravan. The woman next to her looked uncomfortable, her gaze darting from the old woman to the alpha and back again, unsure which offence would be the worst crime. Patrick shot Peg a pointed look until she quietened, but her gummy smile let him know she considered herself in charge. Mags was right. He had to stop catering to their grandmother. “Settle in,” he said loudly. “We’re staying put for the time being. We won’t be travelling this summer.” Disappointed whispers sounded in every direction. “But why?” a small child whined before she was hurriedly hushed by her embarrassed mother. He made an effort to smile at the child. “Because we have business here.” He lifted his head and met the curious gazes of the adults, one by one. “I’ve heard from the Senate. A shifter will arrive tomorrow to discuss our future with the Senate and the rest of the Irish shifters.” A rumble of discontent came from Peg’s caravan. “And who is the shifter?” she asked loudly. “An alpha’s daughter, I hope. Anything less would be an insult.” She knew. He made an effort not to swear. “There’s no insult. I made a request. The liaison will be the sister of the one who should never have been alpha.” “That’s no shifter,” she sneered. “She turns into a bear,” he said patiently. “What would you call her if not a shifter?” “She’s not one of us,” she hissed. “Her people are not the same. We don’t mix, and for good reason. She’s a feral animal from another place. She’ll bring us trouble, mark my words.” “She’ll bring us peace,” Patrick said. “Or I’ll send her packing myself. And if it’ll keep the peace amongst the shifters here, I’ll bind her to us for everyone’s safety. But I won’t decide until after I’ve met with her.” “The Senate want to own us, and they send an animal to tether us to them.” His grandmother addressed the others. “We’ve already lost the summer. Do we really want to give up our freedom?” “We’re not giving up our freedom,” Mags scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. This is Patrick’s chance to make his mark. They want an alpha. Here’s one. The shifters need help. Here’s the man to do it. If anything, it’ll give us more freedom, more respect, too. We’ll win our freedom.” “This isn’t our way,” Peg insisted. “My Eamon would never have stood for this.” “Grandmother,” Patrick said in his cold voice that seemed to echo past the fire and away in the wind. “This is my way, and you’ll abide by it if you want to be a part of this pack. Eamon’s dead, and this is my time, whether you like it or not.” The old woman pressed her thin lips together until they disappeared. He was just glad she had shut up riling the others. “She’ll be here tomorrow,” Patrick repeated. “And we will welcome her and listen to what she has to say. I will judge what happens next.” He glanced at his grandmother. “And only I.” He sat and gestured for the celebration to continue, but the lustre had already dulled. His pack didn’t like outsiders, and his grandmother had instilled a fear of “different” shifters. He was different, too. But apparently there were right and wrong kinds of different. He wasn’t looking forward to the outsider’s arrival either, but he had a motive for her presence. One day, he would likely face her brother, and he wanted to know what kind of man he was up against. The brother had tortured the last alpha to death, used magic to usurp the previous one, and would no doubt come for Patrick, too. But perhaps his sister would come in useful if he did. 3 Esther * * * I made a face as Ava shoved me through her doorway and into her garden. “I said I’d go. There’s no need to get rough.” “Ha.” She snorted inelegantly as she shut the door behind her, not bothering to lock it. “When you start running is when I’ll get rough.” “Didn’t Peter offer his car?” I asked innocently as she waved at Carl who was standing by his vehicle, waiting for us. She shot me a knowing look. “You mean the car that constantly breaks down? That car? Yeah, no. We’re taking Carl’s.” Damn it. Pretty much everything about Carl was reliable—including his car. There went my morning daydreams of breaking down in the middle of a motorway and having to get towed home. “Come on,” Ava said, hefting her bag over her shoulder as she herded me toward Carl. “It won’t be so bad.” “You met the last couple of alphas, right?” I tried to keep my tone light, but my voice shook nonetheless. “Yup. And, ultimately, neither of them got the better of us.” She flashed me a wicked grin. “The last one was even a little terrified of me.” I couldn’t resist laughing at the thought. “I suppose you’re a lot scarier now that you have, ahem, close allies within the Senate.” “Shut up, Esther,” she said breezily. She reached Carl and snagged his car keys from his hand. “Thanks for this.” He shrugged, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “Anything to make sure you both have a way to get home safely. Need help with bags or anything?” “Nah,” Ava said, taking my overnight bag and hers and moving to the boot of the car. Carl turned to me and licked his lower lip. “You gonna be okay?” I gave him my best smile. “Of course.” He closed the space between us. “And when you get back?” I stared up at him, flattered by his attention. “We should go out. See where the night takes us.” I liked attention, and I liked affection. I had been starved in both for too long. He leaned in and dropped a brief, soft kiss on my lips. “I’ll be waiting.” I couldn’t hide my smile as I stepped around him to get into the car. I was still grinning when Ava drove us out of there. “And that was?” she asked after a moment. “Shut up, Ava.” She laughed. “I knew I didn’t need to worry about you for long. You’re already getting back to your old self.” My stomach sank. I had half-forgotten what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t want to meet the new alpha or his pack. If it wasn’t for those women… I could have been one of them. I couldn’t turn my back on them. I just prayed the trip wasn’t a waste of our time. “Think he can really help the women?” I asked. Ava glanced at me. “Eloise reckons he’s the real deal.” “I’m not so sure I can take advice from a teenage vampire.” Ava smiled. “She knows things we don’t. I’m going to be with you, Esther. There’s no need to worry.” “What if we’re both walking into a trap?” “What if we’re not?” Ava turned onto the main road toward the motorway and relaxed. “If something happens, Phoenix will send someone to get us. I know the Senate gave you a list of things to talk about, but trust your gut on this. You’ll know what he’s about when you meet him.” “I didn’t know what my own brother was truly about.” “You were loyal,” Ava said fiercely. “That’s not a bad thing. And you turned from him when you understood the life he wanted you to lead. When we met, you were twenty-one, Esther. You were so young for the things that were about to happen to you, the things that already had happened. But you survived everything. Your injuries… they’re on me. I didn’t protect you enough. That’s not going to happen again. I promise you that this alpha will never get the chance to hurt you.” “It’s not your fault that I got hurt,” I scoffed. That had been the fault of an evil witch with an attitude problem and a heart-broken lunatic who wanted to resurrect his dead wife. “Don’t be ridiculous. We were all in it together.” “And now the war is over.” Ava didn’t sound convinced. And I wasn’t convinced that we weren’t about to cross another battle line. * * * Crossing the border into Northern Ireland wasn’t a big deal. I barely noticed apart from Ava commenting on making the most of a sale in a shop we didn’t have in the South. Shopping was the last thing on my mind, but I knew she was trying to distract me. The fetid scent of fear had grown stale in the car. I stared numbly out the window as we drove past shops and houses, all so similar to what we had back home. And yet it was so alien, too. Territory that I didn’t belong on. My skin itched as we drove through Armagh. The closer we got to the tiny village where the nomad pack had made their base, the stronger the feeling became. “Doing okay there?” Ava asked. I nodded, willing my body to stop trembling. I had learned a little about the pack, but barely more than the fact they owned a ton of forested land around the village. They kept their lives completely under wraps, and they hadn’t been in the country long enough for anyone to have decent records on them. They were expected to sign a register, and I had a feeling that was why I was chosen as a liaison. If they said no, what could I do? And if I insisted, then my life would probably be forfeited. There was no winning when we played those kinds of games. “Do you want to check into the hotel first?” Ava asked, disrupting the awkward silence. We had arrived in the village, and every single person we drove past turned to stare at us. “Or would you rather go straight to the shifter pack?” “Check in first,” I said. “I want to get a feel for my surroundings.” I needed to take a moment to breathe. I had been on my own territory for so long that leaving felt as though I had been shot out into space or something. “Are they expecting us tonight?” Ava nodded. “We’re to visit them later. We’re earlier than I estimated.” I looked out at the clouds covering a lukewarm sun. “After dark then. It’ll give us some cover.” Ava’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Think we’ll need it then?” “I want to be prepared for everything.” For some reason, the thought process reminded me of my days as a Guardian, evaluating situations in order to cover all eventualities. I hadn’t always been weak. For a while, I had been under the illusion that I was on the path to success. But I could be strong again. I could pick myself back up as soon as I knew I was safe for good. In the meantime, I just had to be smart instead. “If you sense anything off, we’ll leave as soon as possible.” “What kinds of shifters are we dealing with?” Ava asked. “Can you tell by being around them?” “Sometimes, I get a feeling. But with this lot? I’m not sure. Nobody seems to know much about them. I mean, I’ve asked around, and Quinn’s been trying to dig up some dirt, but there’s nothing there.” I shrugged. “I’d never even heard of these people before. If we’re lucky, we’ll be on our way home in the morning.” I tried to remember what confidence looked like. “Fancy heading into a pub for dinner and a pint after?” Ava grinned. “I’m always up for dinner. I think this is us at the end of the street.” The parts of the village we passed through were compact and neat. Plenty of well-kept shops lined the main street, and we hadn’t passed by too many homes on our route. The fact we’d only been able to find one place to book a room kept my expectations low, but the hotel was one of the largest buildings I’d noticed so far. We parked outside and got out of the car. The receptionist inside the building looked wary even as she gave us a warm welcome. “Not used to guests?” I couldn’t resist asking. She smiled, looking relived that we understood. “It tends to be quiet.” She handed us our keys and directed us upstairs. We were in the first room on the second floor. It was tiny, but clean. The room smelled fresh and well-aired. Small mercies. “It’s not so bad, right?” Ava said, throwing her overnight bag onto the bed nearest the door. “Want to wash up first?” I shook my head. “You go ahead.” Ava chattered as she searched in her bag, but I barely heard her. I moved to the window and stared outside instead. The streets within my line of vision appeared to be narrow and well-lit, and the view beyond a group of cottage styled homes nestled at the foot of a hill reached toward a massive forest that loomed in the near distance. That was officially shifter property, and I hoped never to step foot on its soil even as I longed to explore. I pushed that feeling down, way past the fear that felt almost comfortable lately. While Ava showered, I listened out for sounds, other guests, anything. But the village was eerily quiet. So far from home, the isolation gripped me once again. The longer I had been trapped inside, the harder it had been to leave. I kept experiencing a sensation somewhat akin to floating. The earth just didn’t feel secure under my feet. While it was my turn to shower, I stood under the spray, the water as hot as I could stand it. I looked down at my naked body, and it was as though it belonged to a stranger. I had once been so proud of the way I looked, the way people looked at me. Now I couldn’t see anything worth having. The scars should have been familiar already, but I was the one who didn’t belong. I pinched my skin and felt nothing. I slid my fingers between my legs and felt nothing. I raised my face to the scalding flow of water and felt nothing. I was just some empty vessel. Maybe Ava had been wrong. Maybe I really was untethered. Maybe I needed to be a part of a pack just to feel whole. Maybe I deserved the punishment the shifters wanted to give me. But a voice cried out in my head, a voice that was growing quieter every day. I couldn’t hear the words, but I knew the sentiment. Keep fighting. Don’t give up. Don’t let them win. Except maybe they already had. I closed my fingers into a fist and slammed my hand against the tiles, leaving a streak of blood behind. I flexed my fingers. My knuckles were grazed. At least I knew I was still real. Ava knocked on the door. “You okay in there?” “I’ll be right out!” I pressed my hands against my face and dared the tears to fall. They didn’t. I got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around myself. But the face in the mirror distracted me. Dead eyes and a worn mouth, sallow skin that cried out for sunlight, and a face that had aged a decade in the last year. I peered at the scars on my head. Ugly and rough, yet I couldn’t stop touching them. I wondered what my brother had seen when he looked at me in the hospital. A gullible child or a memory to be erased? When I finally left the bathroom, Ava shot me a worried look that I ignored. I watched out the window again, unable to stop myself from pinching the soft flesh on my palms. “We should get going,” Ava said hesitantly. I swallowed hard. My mouth felt dry as sand. “I’m ready.” To my surprise, Ava wrapped me up in an embrace. “You are ready. Now let’s get this over and done with so we can go eat. I’m starving.” I was even more surprised to find myself able to smile. “You’re always starving.” She pulled away and pinned me with a firm gaze. “Nobody is allowed to touch you. Remember that.” She said it in that new confident way again, and her blue eyes flashed silver. That happened on occasion, but I doubted Ava herself had noticed. Carl had a theory that drinking the blood of a powerful fae had changed her somehow. I wasn’t sure. She kept a lot of secrets. But when she spoke like that, I believed her. We left the hotel and drove to the halting site where the pack had set up camp, according to the Senate’s information. We followed their directions and parked across the road from a gated community full of up-to-date and expensive looking camper vans. The road was lonely and dark, and the few neighbouring buildings had been boarded up. “No neighbours,” Ava remarked, observing the area before switching off the engine. “Nowhere to run either.” “Nobody’s running tonight. Come on.” She got out of the car. I thought about staying put, but I had a feeling she might drag me out of the car by the ear if I resisted, so I followed her and slammed the door shut instead. We crossed the road and headed toward the open gates of the site. A broad-shouldered man with pockmarked cheeks and ginger hair got in our way, his arms folded across his chest. Behind him, a fire burned, and a group of women whispered together as they stared at us. I stared back, unable to stop myself from challenging them. A child made to run past them toward us, but one woman yanked hard on the little boy’s arm, pulling him back in what had to be a painful manner. The boy stuck out his bottom lip, more concerned with being told what to do than the pain he must have felt. The women surrounded the protesting child and drew him out of sight. “We’re here to see the alpha,” Ava said loudly. Ginger looked over his shoulder. I followed his gaze. A wizened old woman with a pipe was sitting on a stool outside a caravan. She shook her head at him, her lips pressing together in a look of disgust. “He’s not here,” the man said at last. I exchanged a bemused glance with Ava. What was going on? “He’s expecting us. We’ve come from Dublin with word from the Senate. We were told to be here tonight.” “He’s not here,” he repeated, and I could see we weren’t going to get anything else out of him. He wasn’t the brains of the operation, merely the brawn. I had dealt with similar situations numerous times with the Guardians. A show of force was sometimes needed, but usually, being the representative of the leading power in the country was good enough. Yet another reminder about my lack of power. “Do you know when he’ll be back?” Ava asked impatiently. The man blinked a couple of times. “No.” “This is ridiculous,” Ava snapped. “Tell your bloody alpha that we don’t have time for games. If he wants to negotiate with the Senate, then he has one more chance or we’re going home.” The shifter growled from the back of his throat. “Quit it,” Ava said offhandedly as she turned to leave, but the man stopped nonetheless. I stared at him, surprised. He looked shocked himself, but he cleared his throat and hurried to the old woman’s side. I hesitated before following Ava to the car. I couldn’t help but feel relieved that we had avoided a confrontation with the alpha himself. He obviously wanted nothing to do with us or the Senate, and that was just fine with me. We could go home and forget the whole thing. Back in the car, Ava drove away, muttering about rudeness and arseholes. A tall, broad figure jogged along the road toward the halting site. A prickle of anticipation ran up my spine as I accidentally met his gaze. He stopped running and stared, looking confused as he ran a hand through his thick black hair. His beard covered most of his face, but there was no mistaking him. He held himself like an alpha. I shivered and looked out of the opposite window in a bid to forget his face. I’d had about enough of shifters to last me a lifetime. 4 Patrick * * * Under his skin, his limbs burned. The liaison was gone because his pack had disobeyed him. It wasn’t anger that riled him; it was disappointment. But anger was what he showed on his face, anger was what he outwardly projected. He’d been too unstable to show it the night before. When he heard what they had done, he’d gone back to the forest to run. He’d burned out his anger there, soothed by ancient trees that had seen far more than he. But in the grey light of day, he took a long steady look at his pack members, and he decided he didn’t like what he saw. “You think to decide for me?” he said in a cool quiet voice that everyone heard. They had sat down to eat, laughing and joking as though nothing were wrong. And when he heard them from his caravan, he hadn’t been able to ignore the audacity any longer. He’d gone outside and stilled them all with a look. Their gazes, ranging from confused to defiant, had worked him up all the more. “You weren’t here,” Peg said, sounding entirely unconcerned. “Why should the likes of them come inside here?” She looked at him, her eyes sly and cunning. “Without you to protect us, Patrick? We fear.” “Fear,” he scoffed. “Your fear was obviously not on your mind, grandmother.” He gazed around at the sullen crowd, the men standing together to take the blame. Of course, the husbands always stood to the forefront while their women whispered in their ears. What had he changed after all? He found Ed, the one who had been standing guard. “You,” he said, and the man cringed. “You’ll go find them, and you’ll politely invite them, and the rest of you, I swear to God, the rest of you had better welcome them with open arms. You’re fools if you do otherwise.” “Are we to fear the Senate now?” Ed’s wife cried out, clutching her husband’s arm. “We have nothing to fear,” Patrick said, making sure he held her gaze. She cowered behind her husband. “But we’d be foolish to provoke a battle when the shifters as a whole are so weak in this country. If any of you don’t see why this is important to us, then why are you here?” Margaret snorted to his left. “Are you banishing people now?” He shot her a glare. Her lazy smile faded quickly. “You know I’m not. I’m telling you all to think about why you’re a part of this pack. About how our lives would change if we were forced to sign a register and document our comings and goings. And think about the women who suffered, and those who still suffer without guidance. Think about that before you act for me.” “Patrick, I didn’t mean—” “Enough, Mags. I’m done talking.” He pointed at Ed. “You. Now.” “I don’t know where they are,” Ed protested. Patrick rushed at him, dropping his fist at the last moment. It was hard to break a lifetime of habits. “Use. Your. Nose.” He let them all see the darkness in his eyes, refused to falter when he caught sight of a fearful look on a little girl’s face. “If any of you want to challenge me, come at me now. I’m waiting.” He bellowed the last two words, and it was as though the earth itself fell silent. An eerie quiet crawled over him. He couldn’t stand it. “Call me when they arrive.” He returned to the modern camper van he lived in. It was empty and lifeless without a family, and yet it would remain that way for a long time. Perhaps forever. His blood shouldn’t continue, the darkness couldn’t be allowed to spread. His nephew had none of it in him, but he had little of the alpha in him either. Patrick sat on a stool by the tiny kitchen table and ran his hands across his face. Mags came inside without knocking. She shut the door quietly then sat across from him. “I’m sorry.” He looked at her. Her murky blue-green eyes were full of remorse. “I know.” “I didn’t mean to compare you to him. You were right back there. They’re short-sighted when it comes to progress. But she wasn’t alone. That would be bad enough. Peg has done her best to scare us all with stories of feral foreign shifters. What if she’s right?” “If she were right, I wouldn’t be alpha. One of those feral shifters would if they’re so much more powerful than us.” He sighed. “Maybe you all would feel safe then.” “Ah, don’t start that.” She reached for his hand, but he brushed her away. He couldn’t stand being touched after a confrontation in which he used his will. “But didn’t you hear me? She wasn’t alone.” “After what’s gone on before, I don’t blame her.” He rubbed his eyes then stopped short when he saw her fearful expression. “What is it?” “That creature was with her. The one they call a tainted nephal.” He couldn’t help smiling. He touched the crucifix around her neck. “And I thought you’d enjoy meeting the daughter of an angel.” “The daughter of a devil’s creation.” She blessed herself. “You’ve heard the rumours, and Danny showed me the videos of her. She scares me, Patrick. So much. If the world ends, it’ll end by the hands of a creature like that. Mark my words.” “You’re no fortune teller.” “But Danny—“ “Danny should stay off the internet,” he said wryly. “You’ll come to no harm.” “What if her bite changes us, taints us, turns us into one of those beasts we hid from?” He grinned. “And why, pray tell, would she bite anyone?” She stared at him blankly. He gave up teasing his sister. “I gave her permission to come. I wanted to meet her, too. They’re both here for peace. She’s the one who protected the shifter woman from the others when they lost control. If she’s capable of protecting shifters, she’s hardly going to come here to wipe out our pack.” “Some say she’s the one who murdered that alpha.” “Some say too many foolish things.” His patience ran out. “Ah, go on, Mags. I need to rest.” He ushered her out of his home, ignoring her protests. The world had been so much easier when he knew for sure who to hate. * * * His hands trembled when the call came that the pair of women had arrived already. If the visit went well, it could be a stepping stone to other things. If it didn’t… blood would spill. And by the Gods, he needed it to go well. His pack weren’t the only ones living in the dark ages, but it was beyond time to modernise. He left his caravan and headed outside. The gates were open, and two women stood side by side, one leaning her body slightly ahead of the other. She was redheaded and stubborn-looking, the very one Mags had been so afraid of. She was shorter than the other woman by a couple of inches, lean and boyish, but she held herself well. He could respect the fact she knew she was dangerous. The second woman was the intrigue. Rumour had it she shifted into a bear, and yet she let the shorter woman take the lead. In the moonlight, the scarring on her bald head looked more pronounced. Dark-skinned and athletic, her body still retained feminine curves. She moved with grace, but it was marred by an uneasy look in her eyes. All in all, he didn’t perceive a threat from either woman. He relaxed slightly. He had no need to expect trouble. He strode toward them, meeting both of their gazes in a non-confrontational manner. He had no wish to exert his will. “Welcome,” he said. The redhead raised her eyebrows. “Tonight, it’s welcome. Yesterday, it was piss off. Are we done with the games now?” “Yesterday was a misunderstanding.” The shifters behind him moved closer, an air of tension rippling across the crowd. They didn’t like how she had spoken to him. “Good,” the redhead said. “I’m Ava. This is Esther. She’s the one you asked to be your liaison, but she’ll decide that in time.” She pursed her lips. “If she doesn’t feel comfortable, you’ll need to look elsewhere.” That surprised him, too. He looked at Esther. “And do you speak, Esther?” A flash of fight flared in her dark brown eyes. “Only when I have something to say.” He allowed her a smile. “Please, come in. I invite you to spend some time with my pack and fill me in on what’s needed elsewhere. I’m sure we can come to some kind of an arrangement.” He gestured, hoping to look unthreatening, but it was hard to deal with antagonistic people without portraying even a little of his will. The women exchanged a glance then took a step as one. And when that bear came closer to him, he suddenly found it hard to breathe. Her scent knocked him back with the longing to reach out and touch her. He made a strangled sound, but she had stopped walking, too, her eyes wide with surprise. There was something there, something so wild and basic that it couldn’t be explained with words; it was merely instinct. He heard his heart, and he felt the wind against his bare arms, but there was nothing else but her face and her scent, and the need to touch her skin. “Esther?” Ava said in a quizzical tone. That brought him back to earth with a shocking thump. He realised with a start how close he was standing to the woman. He felt the need to apologise, but he couldn’t form the words, couldn’t speak at all. Never had he felt so out of control. His soul fought to squirm free, contained only by the confinement of his body. And she was still staring at him with those beautiful eyes, an echo of his own thoughts burning in those depths. Unthinkingly, he leaned in and inhaled. Her scent filtered into his nostrils and throughout his body as though she had invaded his nervous system. Spice and warmth, amber and the orient. Every note sparked his cells with a shock of clarity. Something stirred within him. A memory long-forgotten. An instinct he couldn’t fight. Her hand moved to his neck, and his pack protested with a collective visceral sound, but he held out his arm, refusing to allow them to disturb him. Esther’s fingertips found his pulse, and she sighed as though complete. Her warmth surrounded him, and pieces of him fit together in a way they never had before. His world had reason, all of a sudden, a purpose beyond controlling an unruly pack, and it was all there in the gaze of a stranger. Her lips parted, and he couldn’t resist touching them. “Okay, back off!” The other woman pushed them apart. Her name remained out of his grasp as he fought to regain control. “What the hell is going on here?” Esther shook her head, her trembling fingers to her lips. “I… I don’t know. I just…” “You must stay,” he said hoarsely. “Here?” Her voice sounded weak, but the tone reverberated as though she had shouted. His head spun. “What, no!” The redhead sounded furious, shoving him back as though he weighed nothing. He didn’t care. His feet and Esther’s brought them together again, their hands entwining as though by secret command. And his mind calmed. It was going to be okay. “Get her out of here,” Peg cried out, real fear in her voice. “Make her leave. She’s a witch, Patrick, a temptress sent to destroy us.” Mags screamed his name, and it pierced through the haze. Esther pulled her hand from his and clutched her friend’s arm as though to steady herself instead. A couple of women wailed as Peg kept shouting. Her hateful words bit him like a sharp blade. He was torn between his pack and the compulsion to figure out his reaction to Esther. “Enough!” he shouted, covering his ears with his hands. Esther was shaking her head, looking as though she might run. Her heart beat so loudly, his own increased in pace to match hers. “Patrick,” Ed said, suddenly by his side. When had that happened? “Say the word, and I’ll make them leave.” “As if you could,” the redhead snapped, even as she tried to pull Esther back from the encroaching crowd. “They stay,” he barked when others of his pack protested. “Then she owes us retribution,” Peg said slyly. “To pay off the crimes of her family. She can’t stay if she doesn’t pay what’s owed.” More of the pack loudly agreed. That was the shifter way. Old vendettas needed to be wiped clean before talks could begin. He wasn’t strong enough to control them all, not when his head felt as though it might shatter into little pieces. Not when Esther’s eyes had filled with fear, and he was drunk on some new sensation that had floored his animal self. In that state, he couldn’t protect them all at the same time, not even from themselves. “It’s time,” somebody shouted. “It’s the only way,” Ed whispered. “Do it now, Patrick, before it’s too late.” “If you let this slide, you won’t be fit to hold a pack of this size, never mind the others along with us,” Peg added. Patrick swore under his breath. He could throttle the old viper if she wasn’t his blood. Esther wasn’t in any condition to fight, and by the looks of her friend’s expression, it would go badly all round. “I’ll champion her,” Ava said loudly. There, he had her name again. The pack fell silent. Somebody had to fight the tainted nephal. And Peg had scared them all into submission already. But she wasn’t done yet. “Only a shifter can champion her,” she scoffed. Patrick opened his mouth to offer himself, but Ava stepped forward and bared her fangs. Mags gasped audibly and along with the others, urged the children back into their homes. Even Patrick felt rattled by the dark power emanating from the woman. “In case you didn’t know,” Ava said loudly. “The Senate acknowledged me as Esther’s alpha. If you have a problem with her, then you have to deal with me first.” Patrick felt only relief. “Well, then,” he said. “Alpha to alpha, we can surely solve this problem.” And there was only one way for him to achieve that. He rolled up his sleeves and readied himself for the fight. 5 Esther * * * I yanked Ava by the arm and pulled her away from the alpha, if only to get away from him myself. I couldn’t seem to think clearly when he looked at me, and I hated that. The shifters would still hear, but I lowered my voice nonetheless. “You can’t fight an alpha!” And it was only partly because I didn’t think I could bear watching them fight. As much as I liked to deny it, I was still bound by shifter rules, and just the thought of watching an alpha fight made my skin itch. Ava stretched, her gaze fixed on the alpha. The bright blue of her irises seemed to turn into molten silver. “Like hell I can’t.” “They won’t let you win.” “Then you and I will just have to do what we do best. Fight our way out.” She squeezed my hand. “Do you trust me?” “It’s him I don’t trust.” I was still sweating from my first meeting with the alpha. Something about him made me soften and forget the past. He had asked me to stay, and in that moment, I couldn’t think of one thing I might have wanted more. That was too dangerous to allow stand. “There’s something strange going on.” “Yeah, I know. I can’t tell if you two are going to scrap or tear each other’s clothes off. Either way gives me the chills.” Ava turned as the alpha approached. “Ready?” He smiled, but a dangerous enthusiasm glistened in his eyes. My fingers curled into fists. If he hurt Ava. If she hurt him… As though he heard my thoughts, he looked right at me, his blues eyes startling against the darkness of his hair, and my knees threatened to give in. “We fight with honour. There’s nothing to fear.” An invisible force pulled me toward him. His scent was like catnip. I hadn’t even known that was a thing, but then again, I hadn’t been so close to a true alpha before. He was maybe three or four inches taller than me, but he up close, he looked enormous. He filled up space in a way that made me feel as though the rest of the world orbited around him. His gaze softened, and I forgot he was a shifter. “Jesus, Esther,” Ava said, grabbing my arm. I blinked and realised how close I was to him. He smiled, and I remembered how it felt to touch his skin. I felt, and I wanted that experience again. Some animal instinct was being provoked every time he came close. I couldn’t explain it, and I didn’t care to. A woman in her early thirties raced over to the alpha. “Please, don’t do this,” she said. “Don’t fight her, of all people.” She had his dark hair, but hers was long and wavy, and her eyes weren’t the vibrant blue that his… what was I thinking? “Enough,” Patrick said gently but firmly. “It’s time to end this stupidity once and for all.” He shot Ava an apologetic look. “This isn’t what I planned, but alphas choose our battles.” He took a few steps away from us. Ava followed him as though she were stalking prey. I couldn’t call her beautiful without insulting her intelligence, but when she fought, there was something hypnotic about the movements. A part of me was excited to see her fight again. A part of me burned to life and died just as quickly when I saw the disdain in the old woman’s eyes from the window of a caravan. I looked at the woman who had begged Patrick not to fight, feeling helpless in the face of her obvious terror. She shook her head, close to tears, then ran toward the caravans. By silent command, the pack kept their distance. There would be no interference. I tried to relax and watch the fight. If my brother turned up again, I was first in line to punch him in the face. Ava wouldn’t have had to fight for me at all if it wasn’t for him. Patrick struck first. Ava deftly avoided the strike, bouncing on the soles of her feet as she side-stepped around him. “Fast,” he said, sounding surprised. “But are you strong?” “Come find out,” Ava said, appearing to enjoy herself. They moved for a while, testing out strikes that never quite hit home. With a roar, Patrick barrelled into Ava, sending both of them tumbling to the ground. Ava made a sound of pain as they landed badly. My heart surged with fear and anger. It was too much. Bear didn’t need a champion. I strode toward the pair, ready to take over, but Ava had already rolled Patrick onto his back and straddled him. Something about that sent a shock of new rage through my system. The anger turned blind, and I forgot who I was supposed to be angry with for a brief moment. I broke into a run, my fingers stretching as though growing clawed. As I stormed toward the pair, Ava leapt to her feet and held out her hand. “Stop!” There was an instant when I wanted to tear the other woman’s head off, but something shivered through my veins, and I succumbed to the will of another. It was all so fast that I couldn’t digest what exactly had just happened, and then I noticed a scrape on Ava’s cheek, and my anger focused on Patrick who was staring at me as though I were a puzzle that needed to be figured out. “You hurt her,” I snarled, dizzy with the effort from giving an alpha a challenge of sorts. “He didn’t,” Ava said, calmly and clearly. “Esther, look at me. It’s done.” “Done?” the old woman cried out, practically hanging out of the window. “The challenge is forfeit. The wretch interfered.” “No,” Patrick bellowed as Ava held out her hand to him. He accepted it and rose to his feet. “The champion bested me and won the fight. Anything owed has been paid.” He fixed his gaze on me. “Now we must negotiate. You have requests?” My hands trembled. Now the anger was gone, that strange feeling had returned. When he looked at me, the rest of the world fell away, and my body felt my own again. When his lips moved, I wanted to kiss them. I had never in my entire life felt an urge so strong, never felt as much like an animal. The sad part was that I was the furthest away from an animal than I had ever been. “Esther,” Ava said. “Are you okay?” I nodded, quickly trying to remember how I would have acted as a Guardian. “I… the Senate want you to make sure that the shifters calm themselves and stop… stop making threats against us or anyone else. The register is important to them, and they feel… they need to track the shifters because of what Aiden and Mac did. But they… we need you to help the shifter women. Some of them can’t regain their senses. They have to be kept sedated to stop them from harming themselves. And a couple are due their babies very soon, but there’s a chance they’ll shift during childbirth.” Patrick winced. “And both mother and child will die.” So I’d heard. I had never seen a shifter give birth, and I hadn’t given much thought to it myself until the captive women were freed. “They need you.” “I’ve heard stories.” He closed the space between us, his presence sucking the air out of my lungs. “What happened to those women? The truth.” “They wanted to live away from the pack.” I swallowed hard as I remembered. “So did I. Mac was in charge, but he feared… lots of things. He wasn’t a true alpha, and he used fear and pain to control the pack. When anyone tried to leave, they were either killed or kidnapped and forced to breed.” “And that’s what he wanted for you.” Patrick’s voice was strained. “He wanted to take you, too.” “Ava protected me, but he said I was untethered, and the Senate were afraid. A paragon came and tried to convince them that untethered were a problem. He just wanted the werewolves, but we all got caught up in the madness for a while.” “Untethered.” He snorted. “My pack may be old-fashioned, but that’s one myth we set to bed many years ago.” I forgot to reply. His voice was gruff yet lyrical. How was that possible? He spoke in a rhythm my heart wanted to listen to, and I couldn’t figure out what that even meant. I smelled him, musk and grass, wood and smoke, and my mouth dried up. He was closer again, and his eyes were full of panic. He looked petrified. “What is it?” I whispered, unable to ignore it any longer. “What’s wrong with me?” “Wrong?” He blinked rapidly. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” “Then why do you look so scared?” He smiled, and my stomach flipped over. “Because there’s something in your blood that pulls me straight for you.” I didn’t understand. “It’s long since I heard of this, but I think this must be what it’s like.” “What what’s like?” “Packs need new blood to survive. We’re born to breed and strengthen the packs. It’s one of those natural instincts we can’t shake, no matter how many generations pass.” He touched my bare collarbone, his eyes hooded and his scent headier than before. “But perhaps this is more. I think you’re the one who’s meant for me, Esther Bear. I think this is what it feels like when two mates meet. I considered binding you to my pack to stop the tension between the shifters, but now that I’ve met you, I can see that we’re the ones who need you. That’s all.” That’s all? I frowned in confusion, but there was no time to figure out his words. The old woman was shouting again, screaming, her voice breaking into the beautiful daze. And once it was broken, I was left chilled and scared. I didn’t understand this shifter, with his poetic voice, soft eyes, hands that could kill, and a will that could force me into submission. I was safer with Ava when an alpha started talking about binding me to him. I broke away from him. A couple of shifter men were attempting to surround Ava and I, some of them coming between us. Ava shoved a shifter backward. “Stay back,” she commanded, and the man obeyed. I suddenly became hyperaware of the scene. Shifters were approaching from every direction, coming for me. I’d had dreams like that, back when I’d been hiding from Aiden, and later, Mac. I’d imagined them stalking me, and it looked like the scene emerging around me. Panic flushed over me, and I suddenly found it hard to breathe. It would always be the same. I would always have to run and hide or fight. I couldn’t breathe. I panicked as my lungs grew desperate for air, but worse, a migraine struck me. I had almost forgotten the pain, but it came again in full force without warning, a sickening pain behind my eyes. I almost vomited, caught a breath, and then lost sight of the world as my vision blackened. I fell to my knees, expecting more pain, but somebody had caught me first. Patrick. “Help,” he called out. Ava was by my side within seconds. I couldn’t see her, but I sensed her. The comfort of Patrick’s arms threatened to overwhelm me, even as I fought against the pain, but I was ready. There would be no mistake this time. Ava searched in my pockets for a pillbox and gave me two small tablets that I had thought never to swallow again. The pain was all-consuming. I saw in black and white waves, and static noise rolled over me as the migraine continued without mercy. “This hasn’t happened for a while.” Ava sounded calm, but I heard her heart race as though it were a drum by my ears. “What did you do to her?” “Nothing purposely,” Patrick said. “Esther, listen to me. I can sense your fear. You’ve triggered an old wound, but it’s not real. Do you understand? It’s the fear tricking you. This is panic and nothing else.” I resisted, unable to trust him, until Ava said, “Listen to him. Quickly.” I inhaled sharply, focusing past the pain to the voices trying to help me. The woman who had begged Patrick not to fight was there with water, her own scent fearful and wary. Yet still, she helped. The warmth of Patrick’s hand pressed against my cheek, helping me ground myself. He was right. The pain wasn’t the same as before. It wasn’t a migraine. It just felt like one. But as I calmed, so did the pain’s grip loosen. As I breathed, my vision returned, and my hearing stopped trying to kill me. I would be okay. Just not around a shifter pack. I looked up at Ava, sickened and weary. “Can we go home now?” “No,” Patrick said, sounding pained. “We’re not done here. We can’t be done.” “We’re done for tonight,” Ava said. “This isn’t right. None of this is.” “You came for—” “We didn’t come here to be threatened. Esther’s been through enough, and I swear, if any of your people try to hurt her, I’ll tear them apart.” She meant it, I could tell. “You can’t come here making demands,” Patrick said. “A little civility and respect shouldn’t require a demand,” Ava snapped. “If you had spent time hiding away for fear your own people would come after you, then maybe you’d understand.” His upper lip curled. “Trust me. I know more than a little of that.” “Then you should appreciate what’s she’s going through,” Ava said in exasperation. “She saw it happening again. Shifters coming for her. Can’t you see what it looked like to her?” I watched his expression shift from anger to acceptance and then sadness. “Yes,” he said, surprising me. “I can see how it looks. None of this is how it should be. Take her with you tonight, but you must return. There’s too much still to do, and I…” He met my questioning gaze. “I must find out what this means. If she’s my mate…” “She’s still coming home with me,” Ava scoffed. “Mates? Come on, man. Talk about old-fashioned. I’m getting really sick of the way you shifters come up with reasons to trap my friend.” “I’m not trying to trap you, Esther,” Patrick said softly. “But I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep again if you don’t come back.” “I want to go,” I said, struggling out of his arms. I was shaky, but I could stand unaided. “This is too confusing. I don’t understand what’s happening, and I don’t appreciate the way your pack have treated us.” I drew strength from Ava’s presence and made an effort to stand tall. I looked around and found the old woman watching me with a look of pure contempt in her eyes. It came back to me in a rush. The woman had called me a feral animal while she screamed at Patrick to get away from me. “There may be feral animals around here, but they were here before we arrived. Come on, Ava.” We walked out of the site unharmed. Nobody tried to follow, but I felt judgemental eyes on my back. And I sensed Patrick’s gaze most of all. It took everything I had not to turn around. “Nice parting insult,” Ava murmured. “I did learn from the best.” “Feeling okay?” I took a calming breath. “Better. Tired and starving, but better.” “That was the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Ava said. “You didn’t deny the mate thing, and when he was pawing you, you looked pretty happy about it. What’s going on with that?” “I don’t know what’s going on,” I admitted, “but there’s something about him. I want him badly, and that’s exactly why we need to go home. I can’t let the shifters control me, not again. I let my brother do that for too long, let Mac scare me into hiding, and now I have to prove myself to this lot. I just wish I knew how to stand up to them.” “You can do it,” Ava said. “I’ve seen you at your best and worst. You’re worth more than any of them to me. He didn’t try to hurt me during the challenge. It was more to shut up his pack, I think. Once the rules were mentioned, he sort of found a way around them.” “Shouldn’t an alpha be the one who says what goes?” I said. “I need a shower. Let’s just get out of here and hope we never have to come back.” But that wasn’t what I really wanted anymore either. 6 Patrick * * * He watched her leave and wondered at the emptiness inside of him. There had been no such space there before, and now, after one meeting, he felt as though he had lost something important. “What’s going on?” somebody cried, drawing his attention. He looked around at the pack who had tried to interfere even after he told them not to. He had no need to shout or bellow, one look at the fury in his eyes was enough to force them all to back away. “What were you thinking?” he said, barely able to put the events together in order. It had happened so fast. He wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to do next. But the anger welled up all the same, and he had nowhere to hide it. He wanted to fly away, but he stood his ground and clenched his fists instead. His pack cowered around him. It was as though Esther’s presence had renewed his vitality, refreshed his will, and woken him up. He’d been treading water for too long, trying to just get by. Now it was time to get ahead. “How dare you?” he hissed. “I invite an emissary to negotiate, and you shame me. Do you think we’ll be able to move freely if the Senate believe we’re lowly dogs? If we have to sign the register? You foolish animals. Can’t you see past your own noses? This was our chance for true freedom, for power and status. And you go and ruin it all on the words of a bitter old women with less sense than the rest of you. You should be ashamed.” “What will happen now?” Mags asked, the only one who dared to speak to him in his rages. “We’re again dependent on the will of others!” He picked up a stool and flung it into the fire. “You enslave us by behaving exactly the way the world expects! If they make an example of any one race, it’s the shifters who’ll be first. We can’t even interact with our own kind without turning to violence. How do you expect us to fit in?” Peg shuffled toward him warily, her wrinkled hands outstretched as though she were trying to coax him down from his rage. “Pat, Pat, remember who we are. We’re not supposed to fit in, not with them.” He swallowed his reply. He scented his own darkness, and it was bitter and foul, a fetid reminder of his predecessor. “There’s no place for us in this world if we don’t make any alliances.” “Take the shifters yourself,” she advised. “Don’t let the Senate lead you or interfere. But destroy the monsters who came here and divided us. Destroy the hellhound and the tainted and the feral outsiders. Get rid of the werewolves before they’re used against us. Cleanse this land, and perhaps we can finally settle. If you believe the time to wander is over, then make us a home.” Her lips twisted into an ugly sneer. “But let it be free of dirt and witchcraft.” “They have done nothing to us to deserve death,” he said incredulously. “Then make them leave. Her kind have no place here. It’s not natural. We belong here, and we can’t live with her type. Her brother proved that for us.” “And if she’s my mate? What do you think will happen if I kill her?” “Now who’s being superstitious?” She folded her arms across her chest. “We don’t mate for life. Never did. It was a story to keep women in line, to keep us hopeful and quiet. You’re not that kind of man, are you?” He turned from her, pretended she was no longer there. He wanted to be the kind of man who lifted his people. Was his instinct to mate just a leftover from his grandfather after all? An instinct to take what he wanted, no matter what. Had he been the one influencing Esther with his will? He scratched his beard. How could he ever know for sure? He raised his chin, and this time, he welcomed the power of his will into his voice. He let it boom and echo and watched as his people bowed their heads as one in acceptance. “This is a new world, and we will live in it. I will hear what the Senate have to offer, and I will respond.” He took one last look at them. “And you will follow, or you will leave.” He returned to his home and sat in silence, willing the blood in his veins to cool. He wasn’t angry. He was confused. He didn’t like that. An alpha was supposed to be the one with the answers, the one who didn’t hesitate. He was meant to have wisdom as well as power, and sometimes, he wasn’t sure he had either. Danny knocked on the door and let himself in. The boy was so harmless that Patrick had never been able to draw the will to shout at him. Not even now when his body still vibrated with anger that had nowhere to go. Being around Danny was calming, but in the old days, shifters like Danny would have been left in the forest as babes. He shuddered at the thought of mothers willingly leaving their young behind because they thought they were weak—when embracing their differences would have made the packs stronger. Danny made tea and sat across from Patrick, pushing a mug toward him. The boy looked a lot like Patrick had when he was young except softer and more feminine. The girls all made eyes at Danny, but he was more interested in learning than anything else. “I’m not scared of them,” Danny said after taking a sip of his tea. He avoided Patrick’s eyes. “Mammy is, and most of the others, but Peg is not.” “And don’t I know it?” Patrick sighed and took a mouthful of hot tea. “Why aren’t you scared then?” “There’s no threat.” Danny shrugged. “The Senate can’t afford any more issues, so they have to play everything low-key. Just in case. They sent those two to talk, not threaten, or they would have sent more. Maybe with a werewolf. I might be scared of a werewolf.” Patrick hid his smile behind his cup. “You’re not known as the smart one for no reason.” Danny grinned. “If I was in charge, and I wanted to intimidate people like us, I’d send our strongest. And those women are probably strong, but there’s just two of them. That’s not an attack.” Patrick wasn’t sure sometimes. “We’ve all heard the rumours about Dublin and what’s gone on before. But I agreed to negotiate, and I will. We’ll not be tied to any register if I can help it.” “It might make sense.” Danny shrugged. “It sounds bad, but what do we have to hide? I’m not ashamed to be known as a shifter, and we aren’t criminals. What’s the problem with it?” “History tells us that marking some as different puts targets on their backs.” “What are we afraid of?” Beautiful would-be mates, for a start. “I don’t know, Danny, but there are fights it wouldn’t be smart to step into. I want to take my time with this, figure out what’s best for us all.” “And that woman? We all heard you say she must be your mate, that we need her. What does that even mean?” “Packs like ours can become too closely related. We need fresh genes to stay strong and survive. What better for a pack than a shifter from another continent? And as for mates?” Patrick relaxed as he thought back. “When I was a child, mates were a myth, a pretty story. Mates were bound together, to a pack, and their offspring would bring better days. But there was a time when the word was used to control unruly women. We have a darkness in us, Danny, something that makes us fear power and strength. For some of our ancestors, mate was just a term used to take advantage of strong women in the pack. I don’t believe a woman has lead our pack ever.” “If a woman became alpha in Ireland, would we follow her?” “We’ve always been contained in our own little pack, but if we want to truly join the rest of the world, we would have no choice. I would kneel to a true alpha who was stronger than me, woman or not. It’s in our nature. And when we establish ourselves here, I’m sure I’ll be challenged by would-be alphas, too, but I’ll be ready for that. I almost look forward to it.” Danny frowned. “Why?” “To prove to myself I’m worthy, perhaps. I never truly believed I’d be in this position.” “Do you regret coming back to the pack?” “I don’t… regret it, but I’m not always certain the outcomes have been to our advantage all of the time. What about you?” Danny hesitated, dropping his gaze again in the habit Peg was trying to instil in all of the children. “I want to go back to school. I know it’s tough when we have to travel, but I liked settling down.” Patrick looked out the window. He knew exactly what the boy meant. “You should have the chance to finish your education. To further it if you want to. I’m not trying to take that from you. Nor is your mother.” “But it’s not the pack’s way,” Danny said bitterly. “Didn’t you hear me?” Patrick said softly. “It’s my way that matters. And my way involves doing what’s best for you and your mother. Don’t worry, Danny. I’ll make sure you have the future you want.” Danny brushed his hands through his hair. “Mam was so lonely before. The only way I could do what I want is if she does what she doesn’t want. I can’t take her away from the pack. She’s so much happier as part of a big family.” Patrick stared at the back of his hands. The pack hadn’t felt like his family in a long time, but there was Danny, the runt of the litter with more wisdom and sense than the rest put together, sacrificing his happiness to protect his mother’s. “You’ll never be alpha,” he said after a moment. He had never discussed that with the boy before, and he gave him a wary glance, wondering about Danny’s reaction. The teenager shrugged. “I don’t want to be.” He met Patrick’s questioning gaze. “I know what I am, Uncle. I know that I’m not what the pack wanted me to be. I know that Peg’s disappointed in me, that she’s trying to change me. But I like who I am, and I don’t care about power. That’s just the way it is. I’m sorry if that disappoints you, too.” “You may not be an alpha, but you’ve never disappointed me,” Patrick said. “And when you’re older, you’ll be my second-in-command, the one who advises me and keeps me sensible. You’re already everything this pack needs.” Danny grinned. “Finding your mate turned you into a right sap.” And then he fled before Patrick could slap him across the head. * * * For a little while, everything else went away. With his hands covered in grease and oil, the working parts of an engine helping him figure out the puzzle of what needed fixing, he could concentrate on something other than himself and shifter rules. He could think with logic rather than emotion and evaluate the situation more appropriately. At least, that was what he told himself as he brushed sweat from his brow. When he had taken control of his pack and returned to Armagh with them, the last thing he had expected was attention from the Senate. He wasn’t ready to deal with them, so he had played a desperate hand and requested a woman he had been half-certain wouldn’t appear. But she had, and he’d been prepared to negotiate, to work out a deal that would protect not just his pack but all of the shifters in the country. And when she’d arrived, he’d acted like a lovesick pup, unable to even think straight. A joke of a man, his grandfather would say. He’d enjoyed the company of women his entire life, had never fallen into the trap of needing one, bar his youth when he hadn’t known any better. Ending up like the rest of the pack, urged on by a woman’s words when she couldn’t speak aloud for herself, had been nightmare fuel as a child. In fact, he’d assumed he’d someday settle down with a human, if at all. Not a shifter. Never one from his pack, and certainly not a rogue who didn’t even claim loyalty to the shifters. But she had good reason. He recalled her face when she saw his pack surround her, the sheer terror that partly lived from her memories. Her panic attack had made his own heart race with hers, and only the fact she clearly needed help had kept him calm. Esther’s relationship with the tainted one was curious. He scented the darkness on them both, but he hadn’t felt threatened or challenged. All he felt now was loss. She was gone, and if she felt like it, she didn’t have to return. He needed to see her again, to figure out what it was between them that made him lose his head. The scent of a foreign shifter, he hoped. Fresh DNA to draw into the gene pool. Heavens knew his people were lacking on the whole. He welcomed new blood, even if his family remained suspicious. It had to be more than that. He’d been going through the motions until she arrived. Since then, his blood had burned to lead the others instead of slowly forcing them to adjust to his presence. “Need a hand?” Ed asked, keeping his distance. “Just done,” Patrick replied. “I’m here if you need… something,” Ed said hesitantly. Patrick stood up straight and stretched. “As a friend or a subordinate?” Ed looked at him blankly. “Come on,” Patrick said. “You only call yourself a friend because we were forced into that as boys, and now because I’m in charge. What do you really think of me?” Ed scratched the stubble on his cheekbone. “That’s an odd question, Pat. I don’t get your meaning.” “I mean if I wasn’t alpha, would you be here right now, offering help?” Patrick threw the blackened cloth over his shoulder. “Of course you wouldn’t.” He turned back to the engine, aggravation building slowly inside him. “I always thought we were friends,” Ed said after a moment. “I thought you were my friend. I didn’t know you had no choice in the matter.” Patrick squeezed his eyes shut before turning to Ed. “I’m sorry. I’m… feeling aggressive. Ignore me.” “It’s her that’s doing it,” Ed said. “Don’t start telling me what your wife thinks of Esther,” Patrick growled. Ed laughed, much to Patrick’s surprise. “Have you not realised how you’re acting? Like an adolescent. The boys get to a certain age, and you have to separate them. Do you not remember?” Patrick remembered. At certain times, the female shifters who weren’t already taken would provoke reactions amongst the boys that made them aggressive toward each other. He snorted. “You’re calling me a teenage boy in heat now?” “Something akin to that. Must be something powerful in her blood if it’s making you lose it. You weren’t even like this as a teen yourself.” Patrick grinned. “Only a little. I remember what you were like though. I still have a scar.” Ed looked sheepish. “It’s the hormones. And the old man encouraging us to fight for our women. When I think of it…” He shook his head. “I don’t want that life for my children. So I was happy when you came back. I knew you weren’t like the old man, and I thought maybe we could relax for a bit. I’m not into confrontation. It’s not in my nature. But now…” “Now I’m acting like him? Is that what you mean to say?” Patrick resisted the urge to puff out his chest. “Not like him. Not like yourself either. Maybe this is a sign that you need to blow off some steam and settle down. We aren’t meant to live alone.” “Settle down with someone already in this pack?” Patrick huffed. “Whatever makes you happy. But you need to figure it out before you’re the one who screws up the negotiations. I know how important this is to you, so I don’t want you to have to blame yourself if it goes wrong.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I’m going to start checking the tyres. See you around.” As Ed walked away, Patrick saw a number of things clearly. “You were right,” he called after Ed. “You were always a friend to me.” Ed waved in answer, and Patrick felt like crap. He’d looked at his entire life from one viewpoint and forgot to see it from anyone else’s. That was what made him like his grandfather. That’s what made an alpha fail. He had to do better, and he couldn’t while his nostrils and head were full of a woman he was drawn to like a moth to a flame. Ed was right about something else. He had to figure it out, and fast. 7 Esther * * * Ava had fallen asleep hours ago, but I still twisted and turned, my limbs tangling in the sweat-soaked sheet as I struggled to find peace. There could never be peace. I sat up and ran my hands along my arms, checking for invisible creatures biting and needling me with fear and apprehension. Because I was tormented by demons of the past, and no amount of running could keep me safe from them. I had never wanted to go home as badly in my life. Being so close to the nomad pack filled me with a different kind of dread than my fear of Mac or even my own brother. The alpha had demanded I return, and I felt compelled to. I hadn’t been able to tell Ava, but the sensation coiled inside me. I wanted to go back to see him, and that just proved how weak I had become. I rubbed my dry eyes. I had stopped crying a long time ago, it seemed, and yet the sadness had never gone away. I would never see my brother again. I would never have the comfort of blood-kin in my life. Aiden had been all I had for so long, and I had been drifting without him, even with the help of my friends. I had been rushed to hospital because of an aneurysm, and Aiden had turned up while I was unconscious. He had gotten to say his goodbyes, but I had gotten no such closure. I hadn’t been able to hit him or shout at him, to hug him or fix him. A part of me had clung to hope of his redemption, but now he was gone, tracing our past back to unknown places. Our mother had run for a reason, ended up in Ireland because she imagined it to be safe. But it hadn’t been, not for any of us. It still wasn’t, and half of the danger came from my own family. I was keeping another secret, too. I had discovered that my father was a big supporter of Humans First, a hate group with political aspirations. He hadn’t just abandoned or shunned me; he was actively working against me, supporting people who openly called for the deaths of my friends. But worst of all were the helpless shifters back home, half-wild with pain and grief, resorting to their animal core to protect themselves from memories that might break them. The opposite to me, who had basically separated from my bear self to deal. If I wasn’t bear, the things I went through were less of an insult. I rubbed my hands together. If only that were true. I left the bed to pace the floor, half hoping Ava would wake—half dreading it. Everyone wanted to share. Everyone wanted to talk. I wanted to bury my memories as deep as possible. But being around the nomad pack had just rushed everything to the surface in an overwhelming panic attack. I moved to the window, drawn as though by an invisible lead tugging me along. I wasn’t even surprised when I saw him, the one person I had been forcing myself not to think of. Patrick leaned against a lamppost, his gaze direct as his baleful eyes met mine. He couldn’t follow me around, couldn’t remind me of his presence, couldn’t force me to stay. That wasn’t supposed to happen. And I had to put an end to it before I forgot how to fake being strong and went along with it. I dressed quickly then ran down the stairs, preparing to rip into him. If I imagined he were Aiden, it would be easy. But when I reached him, he looked so apologetic that I forgot to be angry. “I know I shouldn’t be here,” he said. He glanced at the window then back to me. “I don’t know. I couldn’t sleep, so I started walking, and I ended up here, and then you looked out as though you were waiting for me, and I… did I tell you to? Did I make you?” I stared at him in surprise. He wasn’t so self-assured anymore. “I didn’t know you were here.” “I told you I thought you were my mate, but they say… Nobody believes in mated pairs any longer, nobody. So I was thinking that perhaps it’s me.” He pushed himself off the lamppost and closed the space between us. “You’re very beautiful, Esther. If I want you, am I using my will to twist it into something else? Am I making you stand so still while I invade your personal space? Is it me?” His questions sounded genuine, and for some reason, his lack of surety made me feel steadier on my feet. “Shouldn’t you know?” He grinned, quick and sudden, and I found myself fixated on his lips as he spoke. “I’m new to this. I had no intentions of taking over this pack or any other, but life has a funny way of pushing me into situations I’m not looking for.” I shoved my hands into my pockets. “Tell me about it.” “We have decent running ground if you’d like to come with me.” He leaned toward me and inhaled. “There’s space for a bear.” “What are you?” I asked, curious in spite of myself. “What do you shift into?” His grin returned. “Come with me and find out.” He held out his uplifted palm. “Will you?” I refused to take his hand. “I don’t need to… run.” “Are you sure? Because you feel tense to me. When was the last time you shifted?” I looked away, embarrassed. “It’s been months.” “Months?” He sounded horrified. “Why?” “I got… hurt, and while I was in hospital, they couldn’t operate because I kept shifting. So they brought in an expert, and he managed to suppress the shifts. Afterward, I was in hiding, and shifting just wasn’t something I could do.” At least, not on purpose. “And now, I’m not sure I want to.” “How come?” Because I didn’t want to open the floodgates. Because staying as half a person was better than feeling everything, and it gave me an explanation for the times when I felt nothing at all. I licked my lips. “I don’t need to anymore.” “But it’s beautiful,” he said under his breath. “It’s a part of us. You said they suppressed the shifts. Have you tried to shift since?” I blushed. “I can shift, okay? I’m just not…needing that part of me anymore.” “It’s not good for you.” He took my hand. “Come with me to the forest. It’s a safe place, calm and good for us. If you don’t want to shift, that’s fine, but if you do,” he shot me a meaningful look, “and if you need help, I’ll be there with you.” “I’m not a child to be managed,” I said, taking a step back. “My brother and I had nobody to help us when we shifted for the first time, and we did just fine.” “Did you?” he said softly. “Then you have nothing to fear.” I felt trapped in a corner, torn between my fear and longing. I wanted to shift and run, desperately wanted to release the human shell and revel in the wildness of the animal. But I didn’t want to be a shifter. Not after everything that had been done to me. “I’ll go if you promise to let us go home tomorrow,” I said, sharper than I had intended. He flinched as though I had struck him, but he readily agreed. “If you want to leave, I won’t stop you,” he said. “As long as you come to the forest first and see how we live.” “Will there be anyone there?” “No,” he said with a small smile. “The woods are ours.” “Are we driving?” He laughed and walked away. “Not in this lifetime. Come on.” We walked, but he talked about everything we passed along the way, and the journey felt quick as a result. He was interested in everything it seemed. “Why do you travel if you love it here so much?” I ventured. He paused for so long that I suspected I had secretly offended him. “Tradition,” he said at last. “The pack is used to a certain way of life, and it will take me longer than a couple of years to change them. I left the pack a long time ago, and this is where I settled for a time. I loved the feeling of making roots, loved the way the families of those who built monuments so many years ago now take care of them. There’s something awe-inspiring about the way generations of similar blood create something, all for the next generation to enjoy.” He shrugged. “This town was the first place I ever found a home in. That’s done now. I have responsibilities.” “And the shifters back in my home. Are you responsible for them?” He glanced at me. “I suppose I must be.” We reached the woods, and he led me beyond the ordinary tracks left by dog walkers and hikers. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll bump into humans?” I asked, already buoyed by scents in the air that I didn’t recognise. “The humans here know what we are. They know that on certain nights of the week, this place is off-limits, but they also know that it’s theirs to use at any other time. Is there no land belonging to your shifters?” “They’re not my shifters,” I said bitterly. When I felt his curious gaze on me, I adjusted my tone. “And, no. There’s no land that’s just for shifters. The werewolves have plenty of land for themselves, but they’re different.” “I’d love to meet them.” “They have their own alpha,” I said sharply. “They’re not yours.” “You have your own alpha, too,” he said slowly. “Although, how, I’m not entirely sure.” “I have a friend who’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect me.” “There’s a hellhound,” he said. “Does it look human?” “She’s a person,” I snapped. “And she’s our friend. She’s not yours either.” He stopped walking and stroked my cheek. “There’s so much I’m not allowed to have.” I slapped his hand away. “There’ll be no problems if you just help the captive women, tell the rest of the shifters how things should be, and leave me and my friends alone.” “I’ve no plans to hurt you,” he said laughingly. “What are you so scared of?” I stared at him, a lump in my throat making it hard to swallow. “I didn’t even know what a shifter was when I was kid. When it turned out I was one, my father kicked me and my brother out. When my brother was alpha, he manipulated my life and undermined me to get what he wanted. I had to step across the lines to fight against him to do what was right. The rest of the shifters wanted to hurt me at best. I come here, and your pack wants me to pay for crimes I didn’t even commit. What the hell do you think I’m scared of?” “I’m sorry,” he said immediately, his eyes wide with regret. “That was a stupid remark to make.” I turned away. “I should go.” “I thought you wanted to know what I am.” I stopped in my tracks. I was desperate to know, and I wasn’t even sure why. It didn’t matter. I had learned quickly that even the toughest shifters were intimidated by panthers and bears. I turned slowly. “It had better be good.” His laugh was youthful, and he stripped off without hesitation. His lithe, muscular body was covered in scars. Not all of them could have been accidental. My interest sparked, and I watched closely as he stretched out his arms and cocked his head. I blinked once, twice, and he was bear. Bear. I stepped back in shock, an ache in my throat at the sight. “You’re a bear?” How was that possible? Shifters had whispered behind my back dozens of times about the ugliness of a bear, but I knew they were jealous. I knew I was the only one. Until now. He waved a heavy paw. While I was a large brown bear, he was black and strong. I should have been scared, should have been ready to shift myself, but I was awestruck. Then he appeared to burst in the air, small and feathery like a bird. I opened and closed my mouth, unable to believe my own eyes. Then he fell onto all fours, and within another blink, he was a large black wolf. I tripped over a stray branch in my haste to back away and landed on my backside. He came closer, and in a panic, I tried to force the shift, but nothing happened. Frustratingly, bear retreated even further into the back of my mind. I might never find her again. Patrick’s wolf eyes were still blue, eerily so, and he nuzzled my neck as though in sympathy. I held my breath, and he shifted into a man again, his face an expression of worry. “Are you all right?” I shook her head. “How did you do that?” “I can shift into any animal,” he said softly. “It’s rare, I know. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” “I’m not frightened, I’m just… I wanted to shift.” I bowed my head in shame. “I tried, and I couldn’t do it. I think it’s gone. I’m not me anymore.” He clasped a hand to my cheek. “I can help you.” I shoved myself backward. “I won’t do it again. I won’t depend on an alpha to control me.” “That’s not what I meant.” He hesitated then reached for his clothes and dressed again. When he came back to me, I was still in the same position, unable to move. “And I know what that’s like.” “An alpha could never know what it’s like,” I said bitterly. “I wasn’t born an alpha.” He sat in front of me, picked up a twig, and broke it between his hands. “My predecessor wasn’t a good man, Esther. I was sent away from my family, too. I went through a lot of things I shouldn’t when I was too young to help myself, and now that I have a chance to change things, I want to do it right. That doesn’t include stopping you from thinking for yourself.” “There are plenty of people who think the shifters here should be wiped out,” I said slowly. “If you fight back, we’ll have a war on our hands. Is that what you want? Is that why I’m here? Because you can’t recruit me.” “The last thing I want is a war. Shifters might be eager for a fight, but we would lose. There is far too much against us. We’re not ready, and I’m hoping that by the time we are, we won’t need to fight. There have been so many wrongs that we can fix. Tell me about the shifters you know.” “I’m not sure I know them at all,” I said. “When my brother was alpha, he kept me in the dark, kept me separated from so many truths. Then one day, a shifter tried to kill me, and the woman we were supposed to hate saved my life. Ava was there for me from that day, and I eventually left my brother to go to her. The shifters wanted me dead, but it wasn’t until Aiden was found out and left that they actually tried to as a group. Mac wanted to control us, and so many of the pack let him. That’s the scary part. Nobody stood up to him, and he had a seat with the Senate. We effectively ruined our own reputations.” “Our own worst enemies,” he said gently. “The Senate want assurances that the war against the untethered ends now. That there’s no more bad publicity, no more embarrassing mistakes. If we were a smaller race, we’d be done for by now, I think. But I don’t care what the Senate says. I just want the shifters to leave me alone. I want them to leave my friends alone. Can you promise me that?” It was only then that I noticed my hands were in his. “I will make sure the vendetta against you and your people ends for good. There is no such thing as an enemy of our pack unless I say the words.” He squeezed my hands. “I don’t want you to feel scared of your own people. Not anymore.” “The women need you. And soon. I’m not sure how many there are, but you’re alpha. You can help them somehow, heal their minds or something. You have to be able to make a difference, right?” “I can help you first,” he said. “Help you find the bear again.” “Maybe I’m better off without the bear.” I rose to my feet and walked away from him. He followed. “If you spend time with my pack, just a day or two, you can tell the Senate that we’re not a threat. And then I can go to Dublin with you and meet with those women. I can see what there is to be done for them.” I whirled around to face him. “You would make a deal and let them suffer for longer?” “They’re not the only ones suffering, and you’re right here.” My smile felt bitter and hard on my lips. “You can’t help me. I’ve turned my back on the shifters just as much as they did me. I went through nothing but pain when I followed pack rules. I’m happy now, and I’d like to stay that way.” “Are you? Happy?” “Happier than I was.” He strode toward me with purpose, held my cheek, then kissed me gently, his beard tickling my face. I responded without a second thought. His lips were warm and soft, and I liked his taste. I felt less alone with his arms around me, but that was on a physical level. Everyone needed affection sometimes. I still had to protect my heart from him. But when I attempted to deepen the kiss, he pulled back to look at me. “You might be happier if you let yourself like my pack. They’re not all bitter and old. And if we’re to settle here for any length of time, we need to know how to fit in. You could be a good influence on them. I’m not asking you to give up your life to stay here. I’m just asking you to be the voice of reason for both sides.” He stepped back and took in my shocked appearance. “Come on. I’ll walk you back to the hotel.” He walked by my side, close without touching, and I felt comfort in that. I wasn’t sure what to think of him and his demands, of his words and his kisses, but a part of me that had been stressed calmed a little. And a part of me I hadn’t realised existed burned to life like wildfire. 8 Patrick * * * The site was in a flurry of activity when he returned from his morning jog. He nodded at those he passed, kicked a football with some small children, and waved at the women hurrying to clean up after the night before. The men were busy making repairs, a constant effort that kept everyone ready to move on at a moment’s notice. Patrick’s wanderlust had long dried up, but travelling kept them safe. Always had. But no bitter taste of danger numbed his tongue anymore. He felt different again, lighter, as he had on few occasions in his life. The more time he spent with Esther, the more he figured her out. He had revealed his big secret, the fact he could do something that no other shifter in the country appeared capable of, and the thing that marked him as alpha amongst his pack. It was also the crime he had committed that finally pushed his grandfather over the edge to banish him. He, the terrified boy, able to do something his grandfather could not. The old man hadn’t hesitated to send him away, would probably have killed him if Peg hadn’t protected him. He owed her that, and she wasn’t shy about reminding him either. “Are we to put on a feast for our guests?” Peg asked from where she had perched on her footstep, a lit pipe in her hand. It was his grandfather’s. She lit it just to catch the scent. Her husband had beat her daily, and still, she missed him. Patrick could only assume there was something wrong in her wiring to long for the days she had suffered most. Half the time, he thought she argued with him because she missed the constant battles with her dead husband. But now he thought it possible that she had been his mate, that something genetic had bound her to him, despite his violence. That turned his stomach. “Were we not to eat today?” he asked gruffly, pulling off his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Don’t expect us to get all fancy,” she called after him as he went inside to get cleaned up. Fat chance of that happening. But his buoyant mood couldn’t sink all the way down, not when he had come up with a way to help Esther. He knew how to channel the alpha power, and if she really believed her friend was her alpha, all he had to do was teach the tainted woman how to do the same thing. And when Esther spent time with Mags and the others, she would see his pack weren’t something to fear. He would save the captive women, and Esther would… go back to her life. His shoulders sagged. She wasn’t interested in being around him. She distrusted shifters, couldn’t shift herself so great was her hatred for her inner self. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and rubbed the hair on his jaw. He’d just have to prove to her that being a shifter was something to love. But he understood her hatred because it was something he’d had to overcome himself. He cleaned up and joined the others. “Margaret wants help,” Ed said cheerfully, the awkwardness from before already forgotten. That was what was missing from the Irish shifters—the ability to set aside grudges. “I’ll sort it out,” Patrick said. “The rest of you can’t handle the way she knows everything.” Ed laughed and waved him off. Patrick found his nephew sitting outside with a school book. Guilt twisted his insides again. The boy desperately needed to settle down in school for good. Danny looked up at him. “Mam’s inside trying to fix the plumbing. She kicked me out because I did it wrong.” He grinned, mischief glinting in his eyes. “Accidentally on purpose did it wrong?” Patrick ruffled the boy’s hair. “Go on then. Find something to do before she throws that book at you.” “She’ll have to find me first.” He stood and hauled a bag over his shoulders. “I’m going to the library unless you have something you need me to do.” “Nah, go on. Get some peace.” He watched his nephew walk away. His grandfather would have despised the boy. How lucky he was that Patrick had taken charge. If he could protect Daniel from the pack’s hatred, he could protect Esther, too. Inside the caravan, Mags was swearing loudly from under the sink. Patrick eased onto a chair. “Now that’s not very ladylike.” With a shriek, she banged her head then swore some more. She climbed out from under the sink, wielding a wrench. “Don’t sneak up on me like that, Patrick!” Laughing, he took the wrench out of her hand before she hit him with it. “Let me sort it. But you’ll have to give in and get a new place eventually. Doesn’t matter how many times I repair everything, this place is still a wreck.” “It’ll do,” she said sharply. “Did you see Daniel?” “He’s off to the library. Think he’ll be ready for college?” She gasped. “College? He can’t leave me.” “What if we stay?” “You’re serious.” It was her turn to sit down, her face draining of colour. “They wouldn’t like it, Patrick. Not at all.” “They don’t have to.” He set down the wrench and sat across from her. “They don’t have to stay either. But if I’m to take charge of the shifters in Ireland, then I need to stay in the country, at least for a while.” “The pack will split up,” she warned. He stretched out his upturned palms. “Then so be it. It’s time we saw that the old pack is done. Perhaps a fresh start is all we can do.” “I’m scared,” she admitted. “Is this all about that woman?” “No,” he said. “You know I’ve wanted the children to settle down and get an education before they roam. But since Esther showed up… I don’t know. I’ve started to see there’s more out of life than sitting at home alone at night. This pack is a cage, Mags, always was.” “You just need time to get used to it again. I’m the same. It still doesn’t feel like home.” She glanced around her. “But it will.” She had set her chin stubbornly again, and he knew she would do whatever it took to turn dirt into gold. “We don’t have to keep looking to the past for home.” He held her gaze and wished she could see past tradition. “We can make a new home.” “I don’t know how. I never settled away from the pack, and now?” She shivered and drew her arms around herself. “There’s no place for the likes of us out there.” “There are opportunities that your son will miss if he’s trapped here. And there’s yourself as well. You need to move on from his father.” Her expression blanked, instantly shutting him out. “Don’t talk about him.” “You deserve to be happy. Haven’t we all suffered enough?” “Stop it.” She rose to her feet and tried to turn away, but he caught her hand and held on. “I want to be happy, Mags. I want to love, maybe even be a father some day. That’s not something the pack can give me.” She glared at him. “But she can?” “Maybe she can’t, but you’re missing my point. This is the first time I’ve wanted any of those things. I’ve been planning on letting our line die out.” “Die out?” She shrugged him off and folded her arms across her chest. “Have you forgotten my son?” “We both know he’s his father’s son, and the world is better off for it. He has a good heart. Don’t wish our blood upon him.” Her face softened. “He’s more like him every day.” Her voice hitched. “I miss him so much, Paddy. I still hear his voice in my dreams, still look for him when I wake. My heart will always hurt for him, but at least I got to live that happiness with him for a time. You’re right. You do deserve that, and if this woman can give you that then I won’t protest. I just… Be careful. Don’t make your decisions rashly until you’re sure.” He nodded, an ache in his throat at her grief laid bare. He wished he’d been more of a man when it counted, before their grandfather could break their hearts. * * * He sat down to eat with the rest of the pack. His grandmother served him, as was her way, bickering with his sister about taking care of the men. “Danny can fetch his own bloody sandwich,” Mags muttered under her breath as Peg took the boy’s plate out of his hands before he could sit. She waited patiently for him to sit before finally allowing him to eat. “Let her feel useful,” Patrick said, digging in. “You’re just grateful she isn’t mothering you,” Mags retorted. “Peg, would you stop and eat your meal!” “There’s nothing wrong with taking care of our men,” Peg said, but she settled herself next to her granddaughter. “Perhaps if you took that view, you wouldn’t be so lonely.” “Enough,” Patrick said, noting the way Mags was biting her lip. “I don’t think you’re qualified to hand out relationship advice, old woman.” Peg snorted. “The old are never appreciated.” Ed took the empty seat next to Patrick. “She’ll shut up when she gets to eat, don’t worry,” he murmured. “What was that?” Peg asked. “I’m just looking forward to lunch,” Ed said innocently, winking at Mags. Patrick waited until everyone had seated themselves at the outdoor table before raising his voice. “Our guests will be arriving this afternoon. Make sure you all welcome them.” “And when will they be leaving?” Peg couldn’t resist asking just as loudly. “When I want them to,” he growled. “Grandmother, don’t think that you can nag me until I do what you say. That’s not how this works.” “You don’t understand the things you should fear.” She made a show of blessing herself. “Those women are a danger to us all. I dreamt it.” A gasp whispered around the table. Patrick resisted the urge to roll his eyes. His grandmother’s prophecies were legend. As soon as she didn’t get her own way, she miraculously had a dream which backed up her opinion. “And I dreamt I had a golden unicorn as a pet. Dreams are meaningless.” He shot a glance at Mags who was beginning to look worried. She didn’t usually fall for their grandmother’s bull, but some things were ingrained. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Esther. Or her friend, for that matter.” “A tainted creature claiming to be alpha?” Peg clutched at her chest. “If your grandfather could hear you now.” “I couldn’t care less what my grandfather would think about anything I do,” he said in a warning tone. “And remember, grandmother, that I’m as different to you as Esther is. Will you shun me, too?” Again, he might say if he were feeling bitter. “They’ll bring us nothing be trouble and satan’s work.” Patrick shot to his feet and slammed both fists onto the table, breaking his plate. “Enough,” he bellowed, forcing every inch of the alpha’s will into his words. “This is the new way. If you don’t like it, then leave, but don’t you dare try to tell me what to do.” His grandmother looked impressed, as though he had reminded her of his grandfather, and his anger withered and died. “All of you should be ready,” he said. “Change is coming.” 9 Esther * * * I hesitantly prepared myself to leave for breakfast with the pack. Changing clothes and cleaning up took ten minutes. Psyching myself up to do something I wanted to avoid took a lot longer. I sensed Ava watching me as she moved across the room. I sat on my bed and stared into space, trying to calm the whirling thoughts in my mind. It was no good. There was no peace. “Hey,” Ava sat in front of me, cross-legged on the bed, mirroring my own position. “I know what you’re going through.” “How?” I hadn’t meant to sound so sharp, but maybe I was getting sick of people telling me they understood when even I didn’t understand what was going through my head. “I can see the panic in your eyes,” she said. “You’re fidgeting like you’re about to run. But it’s time to fight, Esther. I used to be so afraid. I was even afraid to be strong.” She smiled. “And I had to build myself up whenever I did something new, whenever I talked to someone, whenever I had to be alone with anyone. I had to mentally prepare myself for everything, and then I stopped having the time to prepare, and I just had to react, and it was…” She cocked her head to the side. “Okay, it was only slightly less stressful, but still.” “I don’t want to go today,” I admitted. “I don’t want to see the pack.” “The pack or Patrick?” “Both.” I shrugged. “I don’t even know. I can’t relax. I can’t stop remembering things. I can’t just… sit in peace without worrying about what will happen next.” “Oh, I know what that’s like,” she said, stretching. “I used to count a lot to calm down. Even now, my first instinct is to find a rhythm or a pattern. But really, it’s about control.” “I don’t want to be in charge.” “That’s not what I mean.” Ava lay back on the bed, stretching her feet out next to me. She rested her hands under her head and sighed. “It’s like, no matter what happens, the numbers are always the same. It’s a constant. A kind of anchor when things get crazy and out of control. So when I count, I have some kind of control over something. But I don’t need to do that so much, and my life is still crazy half the time, so along the way, I must have fixed a part of me that needed help.” She nudged me with her foot. “And you’ll get there, too.” “I… went to the forest with Patrick. He can shift into different animals.” My hands trembled as I remembered. “And I couldn’t shift into any.” Ava sat up and stared. “That’s what’s wrong? The shift’s not happening?” I shook my head, mortified to speak of it. “If people find out… What am I supposed to do with my life if I’m not even bear anymore?” “What do you want to do?” “I…” I had no idea. “I just always assumed I’d be a Guardian forever. I mean, maybe I thought I could sign up with the Integration Agents, see what happens from there.” “But you want to be part of the supernatural world. You want to be a part of the police force.” “I suppose.” I frowned. “I hadn’t really thought too hard about it before. It was just… expected. I mean, what better job for a shifter? But now I’m not even scary.” Ava held up a hand in protest. “You have your wits and you know how to fight. If humans get to be Integration Agents, then why shouldn’t you?” “I’m just… even if I was a bear, I’d still be scared I wasn’t good enough. I mean, now I know I was only a Guardian because of my brother. What if I was never good enough, and that’s why he gave my Circle easy missions?” “And what if you’re the most kick ass person on the planet?” Ava said dryly. “You’re acting like your own worst enemy. Love yourself, Esther, the way you used to. Stop doubting the person you can be.” “It’s easy for you to say,” I said, attempting a joke. “You already rule the world.” Ava snorted. “My world of one. Don’t let those shifters scare you, Esther.” “Patrick scares me, too. He’s so… nice.” “Oh, no. How horrifying.” I couldn’t resist a giggle. I shoved her leg away from me good-naturedly. “I just mean that it’s easy for me to imagine feelings there because he’s alpha, and I’m programmed to like him. He’s nothing like I thought he would be. He’s too kind for this. His pack will ruin him before long.” “I like him,” Ava said. “He has a nice face under all that scruff. There is an aura about him that Mac and Aiden never had. I can see it now, what the alpha deal is about. But I think he’s kind to you because that’s the person he was before he took charge as alpha. I don’t think it’s an act or him forcing you to respect him.” She grabbed my hand. “Listen, I think he might be able to help you as well as the women back home. There’s no shame in needing help. But if you feel so uncomfortable that you want to leave, then I’ll go with you. We just need a promise from him that he’ll help the others.” “He said he would if I spent some time with his pack. That’s the only reason I’m doing this.” “That’s a big step,” Ava said. “You should be proud of yourself. Anyone else would run a mile from shifters after what you’ve been through.” “He kissed me,” I blurted. “And I wanted him to. I’m scared of what I’ll do around him. There’s something there.” Ava bit her lip. “What about Carl?” “I like Carl, I do, but this is… different. I’ve never felt anything like it. I don’t know if it’s a shifter thing or what, but it’s scary either way.” “Just take it slow,” Ava said. “Make sure you’re clear on what you both want, and that you won’t be sticking around for long. I mean, you were all about Carl before we left, so…” She left the rest unspoken. Carl was her best friend. She would never let me hurt him, and I didn’t want to, but there was no fire between us. And now that I had been burned, I wasn’t sure anything else would be enough. Something inside me was changing. As much as I dreaded it, I was dying to see Patrick again, too. * * * I hesitantly followed Ava into the halting site where a shifter I didn’t recognise welcomed us coldly. “Where’s Patrick?” I asked. “He’ll be here any minute,” he said. “He took the boys to fetch some wood.” “Oh.” I glanced at Esther. “We’ll wait here then.” After a moment of some awkward staring, a woman hurried over to us. I recognised her. “I’m Mags,” she said. “Though everyone but Patrick calls me Margaret. He’s my younger brother. I thought… has nobody welcomed you in? Well, you’ll have to come with me.” She beckoned us to follow her, her hands shaking as though she were terrified of us. Ava shrugged then followed. I glanced over my shoulder. No sign of Patrick. It was time to jump straight in without giving myself a chance to worry. She led us to the back of the site where a large number of women were cooking. “Only the women cook?” Ava asked, sounding unimpressed. “The men can if they want to,” Mags explained. “And we can go fetch wood and make repairs if we like, but when we’re welcoming guests, we like to fit into the old traditional ways. It’s good for us, besides. We women discuss our problems before they actually become a problem, and the men knock about their issues. Every night, a couple sits and complains amongst themselves, but when we work together, we get a chance to confront the complaints head on.” “That makes sense, I suppose,” Ava said reluctantly. I ducked my head to hide my smile. It had killed her to say those words. “It looks old-fashioned, doesn’t it?” Mags laughed nervously. “It’s your way,” I said, feeling sorry for her. “It’s just…” She bit her lip. “The way it used to be, we couldn’t approach the alpha so women would speak to his wife instead. This still works for us, even though Patrick isn’t like the last alpha, isn’t married either.” Her cheeks burned red. “I’m sorry. I’m nervous. I’ve never met anyone like you two.” Ava looked embarrassed and unsure of herself in the face of Margaret’s timidity. “Would you like us to help?” I heard myself say, immediately regretting the words. Margaret’s face lit up. “Of course. We’d love that.” She lowered her voice. “As soon as they get used to you, it will all be well. And meeting with the women is the same as getting to know the entire pack. Couples always seem to agree.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s my boy. Daniel!” She waved at a lanky teenager who reluctantly approached. “Danny, meet our guests.” The boy looked us over with interest before his gaze focused on Ava. “So. What’s Hell like?” “Daniel!” Margaret slapped her son across the back of the head. “Go on away with you.” He walked away with a grin on his face. “I’m so sorry,” Margaret said. “He didn’t mean—” “It’s fine,” Ava said. “And it sucked, actually.” I shivered at the memory. It truly had. Patrick called out a greeting. I turned and watched him approach, my insides churning at the sight of him. I felt both relieved and apprehensive at his presence. “You made it,” he said, his gaze directed solely on me. “Yeah, we hear the women are cooking breakfast.” I wanted to see his reaction, to hear his explanation and how well it matched with Margaret’s interpretation. He blinked a couple of times as though dazed by my voice. “Only the ones who are good at it.” I snorted softly. Typical. He may not have caged his women, but his female shifters were still doing what Mac had wanted for them. “Meal times are important for us,” he explained. “We are traditional, but we don’t force anyone. But to keep us… tightly knit, we make a big deal out of certain things. While the women prepare food, the rest of us go on a run in the nearest forest. It calms us before we sit and eat. The women calm themselves by discussing their grievances as they prepare food. Perhaps we could figure out a more modern route, but this is how we work out our problems. By the time we sit and eat, the air is generally cleared.” “And if there are grievances between men and women?” Ava asked. He smiled. “That is another story, and it happens less often. There is a hierarchy within each gender, and another within each family. Families deal with their particular problems in their own ways. I only step in when needed.” “That sounds complicated,” I said. “How did it work in the old pack?” he asked politely. I exchanged a wry glance with Ava. “Very differently.” “Well,” he said. “The women are expecting you, so I’m sure you don’t need me.” “I’m taking them to help us this morning,” Mags said hesitantly. “Ah.” Patrick appeared to be reluctant to let us leave. “I won’t keep you. The women here may seem… their barks are worse than their bites.” Intrigued, I followed Mags away, glancing over my shoulder at Patrick who watched us leave. It was easier to be around him now that I could prepare myself for my reaction, but I still felt myself drawn to him. The rest of the women in the pack were under the cover of a massive open air tent, surrounded by food and knives and bowls. “Well,” Mags said. “Our guests have arrived and offered to help us.” She cleared her throat as the dozen or so strong group stared at us. “This is Esther and Ava, and Patrick wants them to see how our pack runs so they can tell the Senate how we live.” She beckoned us to join the table. We slipped onto an empty bench and were handed knives and potatoes by women who looked more curious than aggressive. More women arrived, seemingly from out of nowhere, and children ran outside the tent, watching us as indirectly as possible. Ava looked uneasy at the attention, but I understood the attraction. “We like to prepare the food for the entire day in the mornings,” Margaret explained. She had said she was older than Patrick, and she had a teenage son, but she still looked fairly young, perhaps in her mid-thirties. Her eyes were sad though, a lot like Patrick’s. I could clearly see she was nervous, but she had taken it upon herself to accompany us, and I respected her for that. “Are you close to your brother?” Ava asked, jumping straight into peeling the potatoes. Margaret nodded. “Our mother passed on when we were children, so I tried to take care of Patrick.” She nodded at the older woman sitting across from us. I recognised her as the instigator of hate against us. “That’s our grandmother. She basically raised us after our parents died. We call her Peg.” She made a few more introductions, but I was still stuck on the look of hate in Peg’s gaze and forgot most of the names as soon as I heard them. “So this is what you do every day while the men run free,” I said, unable to keep the hint of scorn from my voice. “Our men work hard, and they need to shift more frequently,” Peg said, her voice husky. “They can fight to deal with their issues, but that doesn’t work for us women.” “Why not?” Ava asked, sounding interested. “We’re not made the same,” Peg said simply. “We have more control, but we let things fester if we don’t come together like this.” “It keeps the pack close,” Margaret explained. “We all know what’s going on with each other. We foresee problems before they actually occur. We’re a cohesive pack.” She hesitated. “All things considered.” “A pack that moves around,” Ava said. “Do the children go to school?” “We home-school them with the truth,” Peg said. “It’s the only way we know their heads won’t get filled with nonsense.” “There’s a supernatural school now,” I said. “You could—” “Nonsense,” Peg repeated. I looked at the food in front of me. Somehow, I had peeled and chopped an entire bowl of potatoes without noticing. Margaret smiled at me. “We take our feelings out on the food, rather than each other.” “And the men never cook?” “Oh, they cook. But we lose less fingers this way.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not, but I liked the woman. “And in your pack,” Peg said. “Your women aren’t close?” “Not exactly,” I said. “Most shifters don’t live together like this.” I shrugged. “My brother didn’t let me spend a whole lot of time with other shifters. We were raised by a human. We didn’t even know what a shifter was, growing up.” All of the women hissed as one, startling me. “That must have been difficult,” Margaret said. “With nobody to guide you.” “It could have been worse,” I said, but it had been hard. “We heard what happened in Dublin,” one of the women said hesitantly. “That women were kidnapped and held captive as breeders. Is it really true?” “It’s true,” Ava said coldly. “And if we find out that this pack holds the same regard for the shifters in its protection, there will be hell to pay.” “In this pack, women know their place,” Peg said. “Knowing who you are goes a long way to prevent any of that nastiness. Nobody tries to step outside their place.” Margaret rolled her eyes. “Don’t mind her. Patrick’s not that old-fashioned. She just likes to think he is.” “It wouldn’t do him any harm to hold on to most of our traditions,” Peg said. “And do they include trapping unwilling women?” Ava asked in a harsh tone. To my surprise, Peg smiled. “I suppose that depends on the interpretation. I wasn’t particularly willing the night before my wedding, but I was a foolish girl at the best of times. But do we hold with what was done to the shifters in Dublin? No, not at all. Few men have the stomach for that sort of thing.” “Are they really pregnant?” a young woman asked, refusing to meet our eyes. Ava sliced a potato with a vicious chop. “Most of them. Some are nearing their time which is why we’re here. They’ve retreated into themselves, become more like… animals, I suppose.” “To protect themselves,” Margaret said softly. “Who knows what they went through.” “No true alpha,” Peg said, and even she sounded sorry. “They’re lost then.” “Patrick can help them,” I blurted unthinkingly. Everyone looked at me. “I mean, he seems to be the real deal, right?” “It’s in his blood,” Peg said. “He can help them if he so chooses.” A blonde at the end of the table reached for a bunch of carrots. “Patrick would never let anyone harm a woman. He’ll help them.” Some of the women agreed, confident in him. That interested me more than I liked to admit. The women kept talking, carrying on their usual routine. Grievances were aired, dealt with, and then everyone moved on with no bad feeling remaining. It was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before. And by the time some of the men returned, exhausted, with some bloody and bruised, I realised I was intrigued by more than just Patrick. For the first time, I was learning what it really meant to be a shifter from those who actually lived as a pack. * * * As the food cooked, the men went about their business, but still, both genders remained separated. “Too weird,” Ava said under her breath. “What’s the point of this segregation?” “You seem agitated,” I noted. “Do you want to go?” “We have to stay now. I just don’t like the way that old woman keeps looking at you.” I looked over my shoulder. From her place in the centre of a group of women, Peg was indeed still staring at us. I shrugged. “Maybe she’s crazy.” “I’m tired of dealing with crazy,” she said. “And now the alpha’s staring at you, too.” I turned sharply. Patrick had just returned with some teenage boys, and when I saw him looking my way, I couldn’t look away either. “Do I need to carry a bucket of ice-cold water around with me, too?” Ava asked sharply. I gave her a sheepish smile. “Sorry. He’s just kind of overwhelming to be around.” He came over to us. “Being treated well?” He actually sounded concerned. “Your sister took care of us,” Ava said. “I’ll go find her.” “What?” I watched in horror as Ava moved away from us, flashing me a final wink. “I…” Patrick smiled, setting me at ease. “You’re not comfortable around me then. Is it because I’m different?” “No.” My cheeks burned with embarrassment. As if that wasn’t something I could understand. “Absolutely not. I mean, I was a little shocked, okay, a lot shocked, but—” “I’m kidding.” His smile grew wider. “I’m glad it doesn’t repulse you though.” “I didn’t even know it was possible.” He stepped closer. “What do you think of the pack?” “It’s very…” I bit my lip. “I mean, it’s kind of old-fashioned, Patrick, but you all seem to make it work.” He sighed. “Trust me when I tell you that we’ve modernised a lot in recent years.” Ava returned with Mags, and the siblings showed us around some more until somebody asked Patrick for help. “I’ll see you when we eat,” he said, looking reluctant to leave. Mags watched him go and shook her head. “I swear, this place would fall apart without him to oversee every little thing.” She flinched as though she had just thought of something. “Shifters aren’t exactly encouraged to use their own initiative too often.” “Patrick doesn’t seem so controlling—for an alpha,” Ava remarked. “That’s true.” Mags shrugged. “Our grandfather was our last leader. A terrible, mean-hearted man. He never forgave our mother for choosing her own husband, and when our father died while out on a run with the old man, our mother just gave up. I’ll always believe she died of a broken heart.” “You don’t believe your father’s death was accidental then?” Ava asked, sounding interested. Mags shook her head, a twisted smile making her look dark. “The exact same thing happened to my husband. I eloped with him, Grandfather invited us back with the pack when he heard I’d had a son, and then I lost my husband, too. Patrick had been banished for years by then, but when I called him for help, he came back and took us away until our grandfather died. I had been stupid enough to think the old man had mellowed in his old age.” She rubbed her upper arms as though chilled. “Patrick’s our only hope now, and even he… well, he’s not inclined to follow tradition.” “Is that a bad thing?” I asked. Mags nodded toward her grandmother. “Only to some, and some have big, influential mouths.” She sighed. “And there’s me rattling on. The bad days are over for good, but sometimes I have to remind myself to look forward.” The food was ready, and I followed Mags to the table, exchanging saddened looks with Ava. Patrick’s history was even worse than mine. I wondered how Aiden would have acted if I married someone. I’d thought it was funny and cute when shifters asked his permission before asking me out. Now, I found the memory chilling. Patrick made sure to sit next to me at the long tables the pack used while eating together. He moved slowly and deliberately, and I briefly wondered if he were trying his hardest not to spook me or something. That irritated as much as it amused me. I wasn’t some delicate little flower—then again, his first impressions of me hadn’t been me at my best. “Your sister told us about your grandfather,” I ventured. His fingers tightened around a fork. “Oh?” “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know that doesn’t mean much, but I get what happens when a leader isn’t right for the job.” He leaned in closer to me. “And is your leader right for the job?” I glanced at Ava who was laughing with Mags over something her teenage son had said. “Yeah. I’m so much better off now.” I waited for him to try to persuade me otherwise, but he merely nodded. “Good,” he said. “And do you think I’m the right leader for the job the Senate needs me for?” “The Senate—” “I want to know what you think.” “I think you can help them,” I said. “And I think shifters here need someone like you to remind them what really matters.” “And what’s that?” I looked around the table. “A family that accepts each other.” He touched my knee under the table. “Thank you.” I felt Peg’s stern gaze on us and was determined not to flinch. I leaned toward Patrick instead. “I think you should come back to Dublin with us.” “I’ll need your help, I think,” he said softly. “Patrick,” Peg barked. “I think we should remember your grandfather today, and his focus on what was right for the pack.” “No,” Mags said shakily. “Let’s not remember monsters today.” “Watch your mouth,” Peg snapped. “That man was our king.” “He was your king.” Mags left the table. “Not mine,” she called over her shoulder. Daniel threw down his fork and stood. “You don’t have to upset her.” “Don’t get me started on you,” the old woman called after him as he followed his mother away. “Quiet, Peg,” Patrick said, but his shoulders had hunched, and the atmosphere emitting from him was deadly. “Enough of that now.” “We’ll be moving on soon,” Peg said, her eyes on me. God, she was as wicked as they came. She barely contained her smirk as she riled Patrick up. “That’s nice,” I couldn’t help saying. “I’m sure Patrick will miss you when he’s in Dublin helping the shifters there.” Peg sucked in a breath as shifters glanced at each other around the table. Patrick looked at me questioningly, and I doubted myself. “I thought…” I began hesitantly then stopped. No, I was done letting shifters intimidate me. “Listen up, old woman. There are shifters actually in need of Patrick’s help, and when he’s done being henpecked by you, they’ll still be waiting for him. It’s the right thing to do, and if any of you disagree, then maybe you need to rethink a few things. Because if you want a few pregnant women and their babies to suffer, then you’re as bad as any false alpha that came before.” I stood. Patrick reached for my hand, but I shrugged him off, incensed by Peg’s sneer. She had gotten what she wanted. “Leaving?” she said, looking triumphant. “Good. Even your scent sickens me to the stomach.” “I told you to stop!” Patrick bellowed. The rest of us flinched as one. His will was so powerful that I wanted to sit down and shut up, but I swallowed down my reaction, and looked to Ava. “I think we’re done here.” She nodded and left the table. I followed her. I half-expected Patrick to follow, but he was in the midst of an alpha-sized lecture. “I felt that,” Ava said as we walked away from the campsite. “He has power.” “I know,” I said. And if he didn’t use it to help the women back home, then I was done with him. 10 Patrick * * * Patrick stared up at the window of Esther’s hotel room, but he knew she wouldn’t appear again. He couldn’t blame her. Even a simple meal had turned into a fiasco. Mags wasn’t leaving her caravan, while Peg was practically preening herself. He couldn’t stand by while Esther left with that impression of the pack—and him. He wasn’t his grandfather, no matter how hard he pushed his will over the others. He made a decision and went inside to the reception, asking the woman there to call Esther down. A couple of minutes later, Esther appeared. He breathed a sigh of relief. She was alone. If she were scared of him, she would have brought Ava with her. But she still seemed wary. “I need to apologise,” he said abruptly. “Come outside.” She brushed past him, leaving her scent behind. He followed unthinkingly. She turned the corner, out of view of her window, and leaned against a wall, just looking at him expectantly. “That wasn’t… how it always goes,” he said, disturbed by the breathlessness of his voice. “No?” He shrugged. “More than it should. Peg’s old. You have to excuse her.” “I really don’t.” She stood up straight. “She’s not my problem, and neither are you.” “Just give me one more chance to set things right.” She sighed wearily. “I’m tired of it all, Patrick. I still haven’t figured out what the hell is happening between us, but it was never going to work out.” “You came here with your own prejudices.” He held out a hand to her. “And my pack is still healing from my grandfather’s time. We’re all adjusting, and we don’t always show our best face. So come with the pack when we are at our best.” She frowned. “What do you mean?” He inched closer. “On a run.” “You know I can’t.” “I’ll help you.” He licked his lower lip. “I’ll help your alpha help you.” She studied him. “You would do that? Let somebody else take control?” “Of course. I’m not the monster you want me to be.” Regret blossomed in her gaze. “I know you’re not a monster. I can see how hard you’re trying, but your people will never accept me, and that’s what’s been at the root of all my problems. If the shifters here had just accepted us, maybe my brother wouldn’t have turned to the fae for help.” She shrugged. “But I was never meant to fit in, right?” He reached for her waist, and she let him. “My pack will accept you when you run with them. It’s when everything gets let go. My grandfather refused to allow Peg to join the pack that way, and she’s kept to that since he died. That’s probably why she’s so twisted up inside.” Her lips quirked. “Are you afraid I’ll end up like your grandmother?” “She couldn’t have been born that way,” he said. “That took years of mistreatment. And I absolutely do not want that for you.” He pressed his body against hers. “Let me help you, Esther, and then we can help those women together.” She looked up at him, obviously conflicted. But she leaned her cheek against his chest as though drawing strength before whispering, “Okay.” * * * Ava held his gaze. “Are you sure about this?” “Yes. There’s an energy that needs to be used. Take it, and use it.” The three of them had gathered in the local park later that night, ready to help Esther shift. “But how?” Ava already sounded frustrated. “How do I use something I can’t even see?” “You know it’s there. I’ve already witnessed you use it. Now you need to make Esther want to do it. Put the command into your voice, and let her know what she should do.” “She’s not a dog. I’m not going to say, “Shift, Girl,” and expect her to obey,” Ava said drily. Esther giggled, and his heart warmed. If she could still laugh… “You want to let her know that it’s okay to shift. That it won’t hurt her,” he said softly, his gaze locked with Esther’s now. She sobered as he watched her, swallowing hard in a way that made him long to kiss her throat. “It’s hard for her,” Ava said, her voice hitching, to his surprise. “She’s linked shifting to pain and weakness. How do I persuade her that shifting’s not wrong?” “You can’t,” Esther said softly. “I need to figure it out myself.” “Tell her,” Patrick said meaningfully, letting the power roll outward. Ava shivered then rubbed her bare arms. “I can feel it. It does feel… familiar somehow.” “You’ve used it before without realising then,” he said. “At least try.” Ava took Esther’s hand and nodded. “I’m going to keep you safe,” she said. “There’s no need to be scared anymore. There’s no shame in being a shifter. You’re not responsible for what anyone else has done.” Esther hiccupped, her lower lip trembling. “I don’t want to do it.” “That’s okay,” Ava said. “As long as you know it’s okay for you to change your mind.” Her eyes flashed, almost silver, and Patrick shivered in spite of himself. “You’re under my protection, and no shifter has any claim on you. But it’s time for you to let go of Aiden and everything else. He’s gone, but I’m here, and you’re free.” Esther flung her arms around Ava. “It’s hard to let him go.” “I know it is.” Patrick looked away. He could relate more than he liked. He lived under the shadow of his grandfather. Esther slipped her hand into his. He looked at her in surprise. “It’s all right to let your demons go, too,” she said in a knowing voice. He nodded, his throat constricted. He was about ready. * * * The following day, he met Esther alone outside the hotel before joining up with the rest of the pack. “How are you feeling?” he asked as they walked to the woods. “Nervous.” “Do you want to shift?” he asked. “I’d rather… be an observer, if that’s okay.” “I brought you out here early in case you wanted to practice shifting, or…” She shook her head. “Not yet. I’m not… I know I have to do it sometime, but I’d rather it be at home where I know every scent and every path like the back of my hand.” “I understand,” he told her. “This is my comfort zone, not yours.” She smiled as though relieved. “So I have questions. I get how werewolves run as a pack, but how do shifters when everyone is different?” “We figure it out.” He grinned at her expression. “It’s not about the run or keeping pace. It’s about shedding our skin and letting our true selves free without being restricted by the rules we’re bound by in our human forms. The younger shifters tend to explore together.” “Boys to one side and girls to the other?” she asked wryly. “Not as animals. We’re truly free then,” he said wistfully. “I wish I could see you, Esther. The real you hidden beneath everything that’s been done to you.” “Same to you,” she said smartly, then she softened. “What do you do on the run?” “I make sure everyone is okay. I join each group until they’re all ready to relax together. They blow off steam, and I watch over them, then everything gets calm and quiet. That’s the part you need to see. The companionship.” He reached out and took her hand as they walked. “That’s the true essence of a pack.” Her fingers squeezed around his hand. “I suppose I’ve never seen that side. I thought I did, but it was more… competitive. Shifters fought to ask my brother if they could spend time with me, but it never lasted. And one of them did try to kill me, so…” “No.” “Yep. He killed himself then. Ava thinks he was possessed by someone who wanted me out of the way to keep Aiden in line.” She blew out a shaky sigh. “Things were really messy for a while. I thought life had to be a certain way, thought I always had to fight my way to the top.” “I know what that’s like,” he said. “My grandfather urged us to fight to make us real men. Real shifters. I think he just delighted in the violence. I don’t believe shifters were born for violence, you know. I think it’s something we learn, and then it’s hard to adjust back to our natural state.” She nodded, keeping her gaze on the path. “Adjusting definitely isn’t easy. It was hard for me to be around Val, you know, the hellhound, because I kept trying to fight my way ahead of her. She never had a pack or anything, and she basically taught me how to just be friends with someone. The only other friends I had before Ava were members of my Guardian Circle, and I was basically their boss, so I never learned to just… be.” They kept walking, talking the entire time, until they reached the forest. Patrick instantly relaxed in his sanctuary, and he was sure Esther’s grip loosened. “It’s beautiful here.” She gestured toward the overhanging branches. “There’s something so peaceful about thinking of the generations of shifters these trees have seen. Imagine the stories they could tell.” He laughed. “I sincerely hope they never start talking. I can only imagine the idiotic mistakes they remember me making.” He purposely slowed his pace. “The shifters need more safe places like this to keep the levels of aggression down.” Esther left his side to pick a wildflower. “I think you’re on to something there. Maybe you’ll be the alpha to persuade the Senate to designate some land for that.” He followed her as she flit from tree to tree, laying her hand on tree trunks as though soaking up the vitality from the trees. It pained him that she should find such a place so late, that she had shifted with no help or preparation. It was difficult enough even for the young in his own pack. “What was your brother’s end game then?” he asked when she finally made it back to the trail they had been following. “I’m not sure,” she said. “He needed more power to keep the act going, I think. He hated that I was friends with Ava. He liked to have control over me. He basically kidnapped and drugged me to keep me with him, and when I escaped, I ran to Ava because she never tried to dominate me.” She glanced at him. “I resented her for it sometimes.” That surprised him. “Why?” “I just… I only had one way of life. I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t even know I wanted anything else until she came along. She didn’t ask for anyone’s opinion. She just saw that things were wrong and barged through my life, changing everything, and letting the pieces fall where they may. I didn’t ask for that, and I didn’t know how to live differently, and sometimes I hated that she made me think for myself because I’d been told what to do for so long that I was conditioned to either obey or fight to take charge. It just took me too long to accept that people wanted to treat me like my own person instead of Aiden’s sister or whatever. That I didn’t have to fight them for it.” “I remember that feeling, too,” he admitted. “My grandfather spent so much time trying to control me that it was hard to get used to normal people who treated me like… well, a human, I suppose. Not an animal any longer.” “How did it get so screwed up?” she asked. “When people stood by and let terrible men do what they liked. You were brave to leave your brother, Esther. Few shifters have that strength of will.” She abruptly stopped walking then reached up to kiss him. He wasn’t surprised. Shifters needed affection as desperately as they needed air, and he had sensed Esther’s walls fall down, one by one, as they walked. He savoured the warmth of her mouth, wrapping his arms around her body to pull her closer to him. Their experiences gave them plenty in common, but there was something so basic about the way he desired her presence. It was a relief to find she was somebody he could relate to and talk to. She wasn’t his grandmother, and he wasn’t his grandfather. His breathing grew haggard as his kisses deepened. She responded in kind, wrapping herself up in him. He broke away, panting. “I want you.” “There’s no shame in that,” she said coquettishly. She pushed him against a tree, taking the lead, and he forgot about the pack and the run and anything but the rightness of the forest around them as they stripped off each other’s clothes. He ran his hands along her bare skin and felt nothing but her. She moaned as he set her down, getting between her legs then running his tongue along her body. She squirmed beneath him, and she had never smelled so delicious. He pushed inside her, swearing under his breath as he struggled to contain himself. She scratched his back, her nails sinking into his skin and urging him on. They coupled like animals, violent and shameless, and when it was over, they curled up together and gazed at each other, laying on the forest floor as if it were nothing. And perhaps it was nothing, but on some levels it had been everything. She looked relaxed and satiated, a glint in her eyes that had been missing before. “We should find the rest of your pack, probably.” “Soon,” he said. “Does this mean you trust me?” Her lips quirked upward. “This means I wanted to have sex with you, Patrick.” He laughed. “You’re not shy in all things.” She lay on her back. “I’m not shy in anything. But after everything, I haven’t found a way to get back on my feet. I’ve relied on Ava too much.” “Is that why you wouldn’t let her help you?” She bit the corner of her mouth. “Maybe that’s what happened. You don’t know what it’s like to be bear.” She smiled then. “Maybe you do. I have to earn her back myself.” “Are you talking in riddles now? Because I’m not that clever.” She rolled over and touched his face. “Aren’t you?” “Not clever enough to fix this pack. As much as I want to change them, I’m not sure it’s possible.” “You’re the one with the power.” She stretched then got up and dressed. “If anyone can do it, it’s you.” Maybe. “I’ve not been around good leaders in my life. What if I end up repeating the mistakes of those who came before?” She paused. “What if you don’t?” What ifs. They ruled the world. When Peg died, his pack would be easier to manage, and if he were a different man, he’d speed up that process. But he wasn’t, and he wouldn’t, and he’d have to suffer instead. But the women in Dublin didn’t have to suffer. There were things he could do for them to at least begin to make up for the trauma they had gone through. And if it cost him his pack, then it was a price he should pay. He dressed, took Esther’s hand, and then led her to the usual meeting place of his pack. He heard them from a distance. So did Esther, and she let go of his hand. “Don’t let them intimidate you,” he said. “I’m not,” she said. “I just don’t want to fuel any tension.” “See?” he said. “I’m not the clever one. I would have carried you in there if you let me.” “Ridiculous man.” She stopped walking and looked at him. “I know you think things about me, think that you need to take me into your pack or whatever, but it’s not going to happen. If you want to see me again, then yeah, we can maybe work something out, but I won’t be dropping everything to be your broodmare.” “Duly noted. And if you want to see me again, that will absolutely happen, but I can’t completely abandon my pack either. I have plans, for all of us, I don’t deny it, but I’m not just a man. I have responsibilities that I need to take care of. But one day, I’ll need to manage a little less and live a little more. If you’re still there, then who knows what will happen, but I’m not the kind of man who’ll force you in with us, no matter what my blood and everything else tells me to do.” “You sound like you’ve changed your mind.” He hesitated. “I didn’t believe that a non-shifter could be an alpha to you. I was prepared to end that situation. And if it kept the shifters safe, I was prepared to bind you to my pack. If your brother came after me, I was happy to do whatever it took to stop him. I won’t lie to you about the decisions I was ready to make.” She nodded and kept walking, keeping her distance this time. He had never felt as frustrated in his life. There were so many things he wanted to say and do, but nothing sounded adequate when it came out of his mouth. Nothing was ever good enough. Esther didn’t understand, and he couldn’t make her. She walked ahead a little, and he called out to her. “I’ll never feel this way about anyone else.” She turned and stared at him. “Like what?” “Like…” He threw his hands into the air. “Like if I don’t know for sure that I’ll see your face again, then I might lose my mind. Like nothing else will be good enough. Like… I need someone like you. Not someone like you. You. I know you think that this is all about our DNA, but we’ve talked enough for me to know that it’s more. There’s so much more than sex or tradition or whatever the hell else between us. You don’t want to be bound to my pack, but…” “But what?” He shrugged, helpless. “I don’t know how to talk to you without sounding like the kind of man you’re running from.” “Then give up.” She turned and kept going. He followed, struggling to find new words. They had almost come upon the others when she looked at him, the fight dead in her gaze. “For what it’s worth, you’re the kind of man I’d like to think I’d choose. But there’s no way for people like us to be happy. There are already too many people in this relationship. I don’t have the energy to deal with them all, and I’m not ready to settle for that.” He had no words. They came upon the clearing where most of his pack were waiting, including Peg. When she saw Esther, she physically recoiled. “No,” she whispered. “Not her.” “Leave,” Patrick said shortly. “I can smell you all over her, even from here,” the old woman shouted. Everyone was listening to her undermine him. “You’re leaving,” he said, and he strode toward her. She flinched as though he were about to strike her, but he gently yet firmly guided her away. “I’m not letting you away with this anymore,” he said as they left the others behind. “You’re to go home, and you’re to make a choice. Me or your husband.” Her mouth gaped open. “My husband’s dead!” “Then why the hell are you still obeying him?” Her eyes watered. “What else am I supposed to do? He’s all I ever knew.” “Think for yourself. Let me think for myself. Either you’re on my side, or you’re against me, Peg. You can’t have it both ways. I’m not making you live with us, but I won’t live with somebody who undermines everything I stand for either. It’s time for you to decide what side you stand on. Granddad might be dead, but you’re still living for him. You’ve the chance to live for me and Mags and Danny. Are you going to take it or not?” Her face crumpled, and he held her. She stiffened at first, tried to push him away, but then she let him embrace her. She gripped his shirt, her shoulders shaking as she finally broke down after decades of accepting her life as is. “Go on home now, Peg,” he said gently. “And make your choices. Mags and I will be waiting for you to choose us, even if it’s not today or tomorrow. But I can’t let you poison us against you any longer.” She nodded and shuffled away from him. A weight lifted off his shoulders. The old woman was a jumble of fear and anger and pain, and he had let her fester for far too long. He could never trust her—he wasn’t foolish enough to believe she would mend her ways—but perhaps he could help her heal. He stood for a moment until he heard footsteps nearby. He followed the sound. Ed came running toward him in a panic. “It’s all kicking off, Patrick.” Wordlessly, Patrick ran back to the others hearing shouts coming from the clearing. “Where’s the bear then?” a male voice shouted. “I don’t need the bear to fight you,” Esther retorted, a strength in her voice he hadn’t heard before. “It’s Jackie,” Ed cried as they ran. “Peg whipped him up into a state. You know what he’s like. Can never back down.” They burst into the clearing. Patrick swore under his breath when he took in the scene. The pack had surrounded Esther and one of the younger males, a cocky idiot at the best of times. Jackie beckoned Esther, laughing at her. “You don’t have a hope.” “Enough,” Patrick shouted. “No,” Esther said. “They won’t stop bothering me, so let them come at me. I’ll take any of you fools on if that’s what you want. Don’t get involved, Patrick. This is my time.” Jackie glanced at Patrick who nodded. He approached Esther, his fists up like a boxer. Esther smirked, moving quickly as she circled him. Patrick’s blood boiled, but she was right. The challenges wouldn’t stop until she showed them what she was made of. It was the shifter way. It would be the same if he brought any new shifter into the pack. And Esther wasn’t fighting for a place in the pack, but maybe she was fighting for the chance to stand by his side unhindered. He gestured to Ed who moved slowly around the circle, making sure to check anyone who got too enthusiastic. One on one was fair. Any more was an attack. And judging by the way Esther moved with confidence, she would make quick work of Jackie. Good thing her tainted friend wasn’t around, or there really would be war. Jackie swung at Esther, too wildly, Patrick saw at once, and she ducked then knocked him back with a fist to the nose. Jackie hesitated then fought smarter. He tried to grapple her and take advantage of his strength, but she had true skill at removing herself from his grasp. She chose her strikes carefully and wisely, and Patrick soon relaxed and enjoyed the scene instead. Watching her fight sent a thrill through him that he couldn’t quite explain. She might not have been alpha, but she was something. A good mate for an alpha, his instincts warned him. Don’t let her go. He had to let her go, or he’d lose her altogether. Torn between his morals and his animal side was bad enough without his pack getting in the way. There were no good outcomes to anything he did. He saw that as she bested Jackie with ease. The man might have been arrogant, but he was a decent fighter, and the scent of fear rose from the other shifters, particularly those who weren’t fighters. Esther had been raised to defend herself physically, and she could also turn into a bear. Even he would have to fight well against her to secure a win. Jackie went down on his knees, dazed and bloody. Esther moved into him as though to finish him off, and the hairs on Patrick’s body stood on end. What would she do? Jackie’s wife ran toward the circle, screaming bloody murder. Mags sidestepped then grabbed the woman’s ponytail and swung her to the ground before she could interfere. And Esther… had only tried to hold out her hand to help Jackie up. Her expression darkened as she saw the screaming woman’s reaction to her. His people saw the worst in her, even as she showed her best. He felt their disgrace, a deep all-encompassing shame, and wanted to be anywhere else. Esther dropped her hand and turned in a circle. “Is that it? Is that the best you’ve got?” The hurt and anger in her voice was plain for all to hear, and Patrick had no idea how to soothe any of it. “You want a monster?” she cried out. “You want the bear?” She let out a roar of pain and rage that sent shivers down his spine. Her clothes ripped as she transformed into her bear. He stood still for a moment, awestruck by the image. She was a sight to fear, and too many of his pack cowered when she roared as a bear. He hadn’t helped her after all. She had figured it out all by herself. When she needed protecting, she had turned to her bear, not him. That was all she needed. He moved to her, trying to repair the situation, but she brushed him away carelessly. He staggered, and his people shouted out in concern. “I’m all right,” he said, refusing to shift and fuel any more anger. But Esther was lost to him. He could see that. He stepped toward her, and she turned from him, struggling to contain herself. She shifted back into a beautiful naked human woman, grabbed the nearest set of clothes that his people had taken to the clearing, and ran into the forest alone. He didn’t follow her. “What are you doing?” Mags said, coming to his side. “Follow her.” “After all of this? She won’t listen to me now.” He looked at his pack with pain in his eyes. “They made the choices for both of us, and there’s nothing left for me to do.” He left his pack without another word. He couldn’t even look at them without wanting to strangle somebody. 11 Esther * * * I looked a state when I returned to the hotel wearing somebody else’s clothes that were far too big, bruised knuckles, and a frown that would not disappear. I’d asked Ava to keep her distance, and now I regretted it. I took a deep breath before letting myself into the room. Ava was reading on one of the beds, and her jaw dropped when she saw me. “What the hell happened to you?” she asked. “I want to go home,” I said slowly. “I’m sick to death of being looked at like I’m some kind of animal. I’m done. I can’t handle another moment of this.” Ava jumped up and helped me toward the bed. “What happened?” “First, I slept with Patrick, then he got all intense and freaked me out. Then his grandmother acted up, and he escorted her away, but she had already riled up everyone else. This little arsehole challenged me, and I lost the plot. I fought him like… I don’t know what. It was ridiculous. And then…” I took a deep breath. “Then I shifted because they acted like I was this little scumbag about to murder one of their own.” “But you shifted,” Ava said. “You did it!” “Trust you to find the silver lining.” I found myself able to laugh, but tears formed in my eyes, too. “It’s such a relief. I had almost forgotten what it felt like. I needed to do it, and it just happened. I was so angry. But I had relaxed with Patrick, and I think that helped. But I want to go home now. We’ve stayed here too long. Either he’s going to help or not. Staying here is just wasting our time.” “Mags gave me her number. I’ll call her,” Ava said. “And let her tell him we’re leaving. Unless you want to.” I shook my head. “I can’t handle talking to him right now. I like him a lot, but this place isn’t good for me. Shifters are the same everywhere we go. And that pack is Patrick’s problem, not mine.” I sniffed as I remembered. “Margaret tried to help. She stopped some woman from jumping me after the fight. I feel sorry for her stuck in that mess.” “I can’t wait to go home,” Ava said. “You go have a shower, and I’ll explain everything to Mags. We can leave in the morning if you want.” “Tonight,” I said. “I want to go home tonight. There’s nothing else here for me.” I got out some clean clothes and jumped into the shower. I was exhausted and mentally drained from everything that had been happening. Patrick really was intense, and I forgot to think straight around him. I didn’t regret sleeping with him, but it had definitely changed his attitude toward me, and that wasn’t what I had wanted. I’d wanted a release and a chance to destress. I’d certainly gotten that for about five minutes until we saw his bloody pack again. And the worst part was that I could understand their suspicion when I thought of how my own brother had behaved. But I wasn’t him, and I never would be. When I jumped out of the shower, Ava was waiting with food. “Patrick’s downstairs,” she said sheepishly. “He wants to talk before you leave. What do you want me to tell him?” I thought about it. “Send him up. We’ll let him know we’re going to leave, figure out what to say to the Senate, and then go home. If he sees us leave, he’ll know he can’t keep trying to delay us anymore.” She nodded then left the room while I picked at some food. I stood and paced when I heard his footsteps in the hallway. When Patrick entered the room with Ava, he looked drained. “You’re leaving,” he said dully. “It’s not my place to stay here,” I said coldly. “We’re going home tonight, so you need to decide what we’re going to tell the Senate.” “I want a meeting with the werewolves and the hellhound,” he said. “I want to make sure that neither are a threat to us.” “Not going to happen,” Ava said. “It doesn’t have to be any time soon,” he said softly. “But it’s something that should be done. And I’ll help those women.” “Fine,” I said. “I just want to go.” “I can change things here,” he said. “I just need time.” “And I just want to have a life where I don’t get judged all of the time. Your own family hate me. Why would I even want to stay?” “I don’t know,” he said. He glanced at Ava. “You’ve nothing to worry about when it comes to shifters. I’ll make it known that there’s no issue between us. Tell the Senate I’ll help the women and keep the shifters calm. It could take some time.” “We’ll let them know,” Ava said. She cleared her throat and glanced at me. “Maybe I should go pay up?” I nodded, and she left us alone. “I’m sorry,” he said immediately. “We were raised to be aggressive, but not all shifters are made for that. It gets warped, and things get…” “Stupid?” I offered. “I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault what you have to work with. And it’s not their fault either, but I’ve spent enough of my life being excluded and despised and feared. I won’t put myself through it again. I never wanted to be a part of your pack, so it’s okay if they hate me from a distance.” “I know you don’t want to be bound to the pack, but what if—” “What?” I asked scornfully. “What do you want to do, Patrick? Get married? Mated? After a couple of days of ridiculous insanity?” I saw him flinch, but I had to push him away before he made me want to change my mind. “I love being bear, but I’m a woman first, and I won’t be tied down by your traditions. You should go, Patrick. And if I were you, I’d leave the werewolves and Val alone. They’ll eat you alive, and then where will the shifters be?” He moved to the door, his shoulders shaking with anger. “You’re a shifter, too. Remember that before you abandon all of us as unworthy of your time.” He left and slammed the door after him. I shivered. I didn’t like his anger, but I hadn’t liked his pain either. I wanted him to be happy, but I barely knew him. And I was so tired. By the time Ava and I left the hotel and got into the car, I thought Patrick was long gone, but he had waited outside. I hesitated by the car, and he came to me and gave me one last lingering kiss. He pulled away. “I don’t know how to make you think I’m worth it.” “That’s not—” “You hate shifters so much that you don’t think we’re good enough for you. You don’t even believe that you’re good enough. And that right there really is your problem, Esther.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and walked away. And I felt as though he had taken a piece of me with him. In the car, Ava drove in silence, giving me a chance to mope in my own pain. I stared out of the window, wishing I could see his face one more time. In a different world with different pasts, I might have fought for him, but maybe it was time for me to give up on the idea of happy ever after. I might not have tried hard with Patrick, but being around him made me sure that I couldn’t be with anyone else. And I would have to go home and tell Carl that, effectively ruining our friendship in the process. I dozed in the car, but my dreams kept waking me, and when we arrived back in Dublin, I asked Ava to drop me off at Moses’s flat instead of going home with her. “Why?” she asked in confusion. “I just need to… I can’t face Carl right now. Not after… everything.” Ava nodded, but her expression remained blank. “You need some time.” “Will you come with me to see the Senate?” I asked hopefully. “Of course,” she said coolly, and when she left me at the flats, she hadn’t warmed up any further. That was something I hadn’t recalled until too late. Carl was her best friend. When I lost him, I probably lost her, too. The shifters had truly taken everything from me. So why did I miss them so much? 12 Patrick * * * He returned to his pack to find Mags and Peg waiting for him, standing arm in arm at the gates. United at last. Only it was too late. “What happened?” Mags asked, her eyes bright and hopeful. He had to kill the hope himself. “She’s gone. She’s not coming back.” “I’m sorry.” The words sounded husky and broken in Peg’s voice, as though she hadn’t used them for a long time. He rounded on her. “Are you? Or are you so unhappy that you couldn’t bear for me to even try to find some happiness of my own?” “I was trying to protect you,” she insisted. “I had that kind of love for your grandfather, Patrick. I loved him so much that even when he hurt me and everyone I cared about, I still adored him. I still let him away with it. I had what you feel, and it ruined our lives.” He hesitated. “This pack is warped because of my own family. And now it’s my responsibility to fix it. How can I do that when you all fight against everything I try to do? I’m not just talking about Esther. I’m talking about everything. This is it. This is the turning point. It’s time for me to change the way we live, and you can all stand with me or leave. Danny has the brains to do well in school, but not if we keep moving around all of the time.” “That’s our way,” Peg said. “We can’t be confined by laws made by lesser beings.” “They’re not lesser beings,” Mags said crossly. “We were never kings of this world. You have to stop thinking like that.” “And it’s no longer safe to travel the world,” Patrick added. “We’re marked as different in more ways than one now. We’re not welcome anywhere. We have to settle down and adapt or die.” “And lose our culture and heritage?” Peg asked, sounding as though she might cry. “Where will that leave us?” “It’ll give us a fresh start,” he said shortly. “If our culture can’t adapt and progress and survive on its own, then it was never worth having. Nothing is supposed to stay the same. The old days are gone. We have to adjust to this new world before it’s too late.” “Margaret, tell him,” Peg pleaded, her voice full of emotion. “Tell him he’s wrong.” “But I agree with him,” Mags said softly. “It’s time we started living in this world instead of the past.” “The Senate and everyone else think we’re animals,” Patrick said, “and when they sent someone to test us, we proved them right. I’m going to be leaving to help the shifters, and if you want to leave while I’m gone, then so be it, but this place was my home for a lot longer than the pack was. I’m not going to abandon the rest of the world just because you’ve taken me back. You need me more than I need you all.” He strode away, leaving Peg to mull through his words. Mags followed him. “Won’t Esther come back?” she asked. “When she’s had time to think about it.” “No,” he said. “She gave up on us all.” He turned and took her hands. “Thank you for giving her a chance, even when you were scared.” “I’d do anything for you,” she said fiercely. “Then support me now,” he said. “Always,” she said. “You know what I think. They want a leader, so you have to lead them until they’re ready to think for themselves. But you can’t give up your life anymore. I see you do it every day. There’s a happy future out there waiting for you. You just have to take it.” “I don’t know how,” he said. “I scared off the one woman I’ve ever felt I could make a future with. She’s too young, Mags. She’s not ready to settle down and be all of the things that I need.” “So give her time,” she said. “Be there while she grows into the woman who’s ready to settle down.” “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Except that it’s time I really did take responsibility for all of the shifters in Ireland like I’m supposed to. They can have local packs, and I encourage it, but there needs to be somebody at the top to rein them all in. When I go to help the captive women, I’ll help the others, too. There’ll be challenges, but I’ll deal with them.” “Take Ed with you,” she said. He shook his head. “Some things I need to do alone.” But that didn’t feel right either. 13 Esther * * * “Cheer up, love,” Edel said over breakfast. I had spent the night on her sofa, but Moses hadn’t appeared. I was sort of glad. I didn’t want to have to explain the situation to him. I gave his mother a weak smile. “Trying. I have to go see the Senate this evening with Ava, and I don’t really know what to tell them.” “The truth would probably do.” She took a sip from her cup of tea. “You seem very disturbed since you got back.” “I am a little. I met someone I really like, but it’s so beyond complicated. I sort of feel like life is never going to be uncomplicated.” “Maybe it won’t. But if you’re sad because you left someone behind, then perhaps they shouldn’t stay left behind, you know?” I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anyway. There’s so much more to deal with. He could be the key to helping the women that Mac held captive. And if anyone needs helping, it’s them.” “So you’ll see him again, surely.” I tried to smile. “I don’t think we’ll be travelling in the same circles, for some reason.” “You never know.” Maybe not, but I doubted I’d see Patrick again. He was too tied to his pack, and I was so far removed from that way of life that we couldn’t deal with each other properly. I wished everything were different, but it wasn’t. And now I had to explain that to Carl. I just wasn’t sure how. * * * I strolled around town for a couple of hours, wandering from shop to shop in an attempt to trick my mind into thinking about something other than shifters. It was no use. The way I’d left things with Patrick kept playing on my mind. He was a good man. He deserved better. I ate alone in a small café, briefly glancing up at a television screen in the corner. I couldn’t hear, but the report appeared to be about the Humans First crowd. My food turned to lead in my stomach as I thought of my father. All of my problems had stemmed from his rejection, and now he was paying off Humans First. I left the rest of my food uneaten, paid, then took the Dart to a place I thought I would never see again—my childhood home. My father was rich. His family came from money, and he had always worked hard to make more. The house was excessive—the property prices in the area were ridiculous—and his car was a petrol guzzling monster intended to show off how much my father was worth. All of these things and more occurred to me as I let myself into the front garden and made my way up the garden path. The place had once been home, but now I looked upon it with a stranger’s eyes. There had never been love. There had been pride and money and boasting, but never love. I remembered it so clearly now. I banged on the front door until my father answered, his hair more grey than it had been, his eyes more wrinkled, and his mouth more downturned than I remembered. When he saw me, it took him a moment. His mouth opened and closed without a sound. He soon recovered and pointed over my shoulder. “Leave. Now.” “Not until you talk to me.” He tried to slam the door in my face, but I blocked the way and shoved it back, almost knocking him down. “I will make a holy show of you,” I said menacingly. “And I’ll let all of your little Humans First buddies know the truth about you if you don’t talk to me.” “Esther—” “I’m not above camping outside,” I warned. “Not above turning into a bear on your front lawn either.” He ran his hands over his face then stood aside. “Come in.” I strode into the hallway, oozing confidence, but really, I was shaking inside. I was terrified, and my go-to response was to wish Ava or somebody was by my side, but there were some things I needed to do alone. For myself. And it was high time I confronted my past. I let myself into the kitchen and sat at the table, waiting for my father to follow. He entered the room, avoiding my gaze, and I forced myself to stare at him. He looked so pathetic that I could hardly believe I had let his hate control so much of my life for so long. “What do you want?” he asked at last, still refusing to meet my gaze. “Why Humans First?” I asked. “Why fund the people who want your children dead? Wasn’t kicking us out enough?” “Your brother deserves to die,” he said, shocking me with the hatred in his voice. “Even your mother worried how he would turn out. I only kept him around because I thought you would escape that… curse.” “I’m not cursed,” I scoffed. “And neither is Aiden.” He laughed then, a hollow soulless laugh that chilled me. “That boy is a monster.” “A monster you created when you turned your back on us,” I snapped. “He did what he did to protect us when you wouldn’t.” He faltered for a moment. “No, I won’t let you blame me for his crimes. He came from bad blood, even your mother said so. And when she died… I suppose it’s too late for secrets. She was pregnant when we married. Aiden’s not mine, and I held out hope that you wouldn’t be like him.” I chewed over that. My skin was lighter than Aiden’s and my mother’s, but I figured that was a quirk. It hadn’t actually occurred to me that we might have different fathers. And now Aiden was searching for the truth of our past. “Does Aiden know?” “Yes. He came here, too, asking questions, and I was only too happy to tell him the truth.” Bitterness fought with triumph in his voice. I felt unclean just being in the same room as him. I gazed at my father, sadder than I had ever been. “Do you realise the harm you did? How hard you’ve made so many peoples’ lives because you just couldn’t love your children for who they are?” “Aiden’s not—” “Yeah, I heard you the first time. You raised him, so what does that make you? A scared little man so full of hate you threw away your family. And now what are you left with? An empty house and friends like Human First.” I rose to my feet, the scorn tasting sour in my mouth. “I used to wish you’d just come get me and tell me you made a mistake. I thought that if I gave you enough time, did enough good in the world, that you’d see sense and feel proud of me. But I don’t want your love or your pride or your pity. I’m a better person than you could ever be, and if it wasn’t for my brother, I might have ended up as cold as you. For all the bad he did, he protected me from your fate. Enjoy your old age, Dad. I won’t end up like you.” I left him. He had nothing else to say to me, and I had said everything I needed to. The man had turned us away when we needed him, but as it turned out, he had nothing good to give us in any case. Aiden made his choices, and now I had to make mine. * * * Later that evening, I met up with Ava to go meet with the Senate together. “Doing okay?” I asked warily. She nodded. “Want to walk or share a taxi?” “Walk, please.” She shrugged and started walking. I quickly caught up to her. “Are you angry with me?” “Nope.” “Then what?” “Nothing. I’m just… waiting to see how this all shakes out.” “And if it shakes out a certain way, will you be mad at me then?” She looked at me in exasperation. “You can’t make decisions based on who might be mad at you later, Esther.” “I’m not. I’m just trying to figure you out.” I couldn’t lose the warrior I discovered in a forest in Armagh or the strong woman who had confronted her past in her childhood home. I couldn’t go back to being a timid follower who couldn’t think for herself. “Well, stop. It’s infuriating. I thought you were… never mind. Let’s just get this over with. I’m not looking forward to meeting with the Senate so soon after our last encounter. I’ve had it up to my eyes with the lot of them.” I noticed her fidgeting as we walked. What the hell was she so nervous about? We walked the rest of the way in silence until we spotted Phoenix waiting outside the old court room. Ava slowed down momentarily. “You okay?” “Yes,” she snapped. “Sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” She rolled her shoulders then kept going. Phoenix gave her a warm smile as we approached. “So you survived the trip.” “Barely,” Ava said. “Everyone else inside?” “Anyone who’s going to make an appearance,” he said. “Come on then.” Inside the courtroom, we were greeted by four members of the Senate: Willow, Layla, Callista, and Mick. And when Phoenix asked what had happened in Armagh, I found myself recalling my Guardian days once again and making a report in a steady, confident voice. “The alpha has agreed to deal with the shifters, but he’d like to meet with Val and the werewolves,” I ended with. “No,” Phoenix said predictably, given that he had close connections with both. “I think this is something we should give a little leeway on,” Callista said gently. “We are rather desperate.” “He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who wants to take them over or anything,” Ava said. “He actually seemed pretty decent.” “He’s a shifter alpha,” Phoenix said. “What kind of man can that make him?” “A pretty freaking good one,” I snapped. “Don’t judge everyone just because my brother was a massive arsehole. It was your mother who helped him get ahead, remember?” The fae prince frowned. “And Mac? Would you blame my mother for that, too?” “No, I blame Mac for his actions. And I blame my brother for his, too. It’s about time we all started getting accountable for ourselves. You know that. My point was only that we can’t judge everyone based on the actions of a few. The pack in Armagh is pretty old-fashioned, yeah, but Patrick is a good man. He’s trying his best to improve things, and in some ways, his pack are better than anything I’ve seen down here, so they’re doing something right. Give him a chance to prove himself. I mean, he’s already offered to help the captive women. And he’s not trying to take a position of power. It’s being thrust upon him. Ava, you agree with me, right?” “He has a difficult job, but he’s doing the best he can,” Ava said. “I agree with Esther. He seems like a good person.” “He’s a great person,” I insisted. “Thank you for the endorsement,” a male voice said behind us. I whirled around in surprise. I hadn’t even heard the door open. “I was told there would be a meeting about me today,” Patrick said gruffly. “I thought I should probably be present.” “Patrick!” I blurted. “I didn’t think… I mean…” I bit my lip. “I’m glad you’re here,” Ava said. “Whatever else happens, helping those women is supposed to be everyone’s priority.” She raised both brows at Phoenix. “Right?” “As long as he doesn’t threaten the life of anyone under my protection,” Phoenix said. “But yes, the women are in desperate need of help. Can you do it, Patrick?” Patrick looked straight at me. “I think so, but I might need a little help. Will you come with me, Esther? I need a woman they can trust before they see me. I don’t want to upset them in case they go into labour.” “Do it,” Ava said under her breath. “Help him, Es.” I thought about it for about three seconds before saying yes. 14 Esther * * * I couldn’t help glancing at Patrick as we drove to the clinic where the pregnant shifters were being held, mostly sedated. Phoenix had offered to drive us there, and Ava sat in the front passenger seat next to him, leaving Patrick and I in the back. He looked at me with a soft gaze. “It’s good to see you again.” “It wasn’t that long,” I said with a short laugh. “Still.” He hesitated then lowered his voice. “The pack is willing to change. Even my grandmother is trying to turn a new leaf. It’s all because of you. I was apathetic at best before you came along, and I let a lot slide. Honestly, I was afraid of turning into my grandfather if I acted like an alpha at all.” “You wouldn’t,” I said with confidence. “That’s not you.” He shook his head and sat back in the seat, looking as though the entire world rested on his shoulders. On a whim, I slipped my hand into his. He squeezed and held on, his large warm hand secure around mine. We sat like that for the rest of the journey, and the tension in the car kept rising. I wasn’t sure why the atmosphere had gone so electric, but I felt as though I might burst out of my skin or something. I didn’t care that Phoenix could see our joined hands, or even that Ava disapproved of me breaking Carl’s heart. It felt good to sit next to Patrick, especially so far from his pack. “Did you come here alone?” I asked him when Phoenix parked outside the clinic. Patrick nodded. “I left Mags and Ed in charge. Who knows what I’ll go back to.” He looked at me as though contemplating not going back, but perhaps that was wishful thinking. “This is it,” Ava said. “Should we go right in?” Phoenix made a sound of agreement. “We’ll all go in, and I’ll speak to the doctor in charge of the shifters’ wellbeing.” We hung around in the waiting room while Phoenix dealt with red tape. Ava watched him, pacing the floor instead of sitting next to us. I leaned against Patrick, unable to stop myself. He wrapped his arm around me, and I sensed his apprehension. “It’s not so bad,” I said. “I’m worried I’ll make it worse because I’m a man,” he admitted. He looked to Ava. “You were the one who found them?” She pressed her lips together, looking grim. “They weren’t in a good state. I haven’t see any of them since.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Maybe they’ve improved since then.” “What were they like when you found them? Behaviourally, I mean.” She finally sat, and I realised she was nervous, too. “One woman was drugged, but she stayed conscious long enough to tell me there were others who needed help. I saw a pregnant woman who was awake. She looked deranged. She had hurt herself, I think, pulled her own hair out of her head. And she flew at the door like she would hurt herself to get to me. She was like a feral animal. The biggest worry has been damage to the unborn children, I believe.” “If they’ve been sedated frequently, they haven’t had a chance to deal with what happened to them,” Patrick said. “And if they aren’t conscious, I won’t be able to reach them. They’ll have to be able to hear and understand me.” He looked at me. “They might fight.” “I’ll still be here,” I said. “I think we all want what’s best for these women, and I’m pretty sure you can help them. If not you then I don’t know what’s going to happen.” He leaned forward and rested his face in his hands. When he looked up again, his expression was one of determination. “I’ll help them.” Phoenix stood aside to wait for a doctor to return, and Ava went to him and spoke a few words. They came over to us together. Phoenix nodded at Patrick. “Ava said you feel the women need to be conscious. Are you sure that’s a good idea?” “I don’t have any other options,” Patrick said. “We can try one woman at a time. Perhaps one most close to term. I’ll bring a sedative with me if she loses all control. If she goes into labour, she’ll still have a chance at survival.” “I’ll discuss it with the doctor, but it will take some time for the drugs to leave their systems,” Phoenix said. “I’ll wait,” Patrick said. “For as long as it takes.” “I’ll wait, too,” I said. “I might be of some help.” Phoenix nodded and looked at Ava. “And you?” “I don’t mind hanging around. I’m not sure I’ll be any help.” She grinned. “I can do some food runs though.” Phoenix smiled back good-humouredly. “I’ll stick around, too, in case the red tape gets in the way too much. Ava, help me with the coffees at the drinks machine.” The pair left. Patrick watched them with interest. “So that’s the big scary fae prince then.” “He’s more intimidating in a battle,” I said. “Don’t cross him, but he seems to want to do the best for people, more than anyone else on the Senate. He’s your ally, if you need one.” He surprised me by leaning in to steal a kiss. “I already have an ally. Thank you for defending me to the Senate in any case. It was nice to hear good things come out of your mouth after everything that happened.” “It wasn’t your fault, and I do believe that you have the best interests of the shifters in mind when you make decisions. It’s a lot of responsibility.” I gestured around the waiting room. “Even this is pretty ridiculous. You don’t even know these women, and you’ve been tasked with basically saving their sanity and their children.” I shrugged. “Shifters have a bad reputation, and you have a lot of work to do, but I think… no, I know that you’re the man for the job.” And then I kissed him back. 15 Patrick * * * Patrick stared through a window at an unconscious pregnant woman and wanted to destroy the men who had done that to her. Only Esther’s hand in his kept him calm. He’d heard what happened, been disgusted by it, but seeing the repercussions was a whole other story. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said. “If I had come earlier…” “You’re here now,” she said reassuringly. “You can help them. What’s the alternative? They remain sedated for the rest of their lives? Her time is fast approaching, according to the doctors. She could go into labour any day now. It’s less risk than the other women.” “I feel so sorry for them,” he said. “When my father died, when my sister’s husband died… I saw the pain left behind, but this pain is constant and living in a way that death isn’t. There’s no moving on, not like this. If I don’t help them, they’ll be better off dead. What kind of world do we live in when our people would willingly harm our own?” “We can’t blame ourselves,” she said, but she looked troubled, too. “The rest of the world is blaming us enough as it is.” “The ones who did this—the ones still living—they deserve to suffer.” She glanced at him. “The Senate have them. It’s too public to do anything else right now.” “If I take over the shifters here, they’ll need to follow my rules and accept my punishments. Will the Senate agree to that?” She turned around and leaned against the glass, animated for some reason. “You’ll have to make deals with the Senate, compromises. If the vampires are allowed to keep their volunteers, why shouldn’t you get to decide shifter laws? You’ll have to make certain reassurances.” “Such as?” “They might want to deal with shifter attacks against other species, for example. You could offer that in exchange for judging shifters who have harmed other shifters. It’s not such a wild idea. I mean, think about it. If shifters police each other properly, the Senate won’t be embarrassed again. At least not publicly.” “Mags thinks I should try for a seat on the Senate,” he said. “What do you think?” “Personally, I wouldn’t. It’s too restrictive. Yes, there are perks, but you’ll get the backlash for so much more than the actions of shifters. It’s best to make an ally on the Senate.” He thought about that. “Like Phoenix?” “Preferably one of the more powerful members, yeah.” She laid her hand on his arm. “Like I said, there will be compromises, but if you’re seen to cooperate, the Senate will be more agreeable, too. And you need a strong position here in case another paragon comes along causing trouble.” “My people need to travel, at least some of them. It’s born in us, and it came from necessity to keep us safe in the past. If I take over the shifters, then I’ll need to reach out to groups all over the country. I can’t take care of everything alone, and you obviously know how to deal with the Senate. Can you be my liaison, Esther? Can you come with me and help me help the shifters? You’re smart and experienced, and I’m out of my league. I need a second opinion.” She winced. “I don’t know if I can do that, Patrick. It’s a lot to ask.” “I know you don’t want to be tied to me, but—” “It’s not that. It’s just… complicated.” He nodded. “I get it.” But disappointment tasted bitter on his tongue. By the time the woman had started to wake up, he was restless again. He didn’t know how to deal with politics. That wasn’t his strong point. He desperately needed somebody else to speak for him in an official sense. One of the doctors took the woman’s blood pressure then came outside to speak to Patrick. “Nicola hasn’t responded to any of my attempts to communicate with her since she arrived here, but her blood pressure is low enough to make me inclined to risk this.” “I’m not going to hurt her.” Patrick turned to Esther. “Will you go in there with me?” “I will,” Esther said. They left Ava and Phoenix together in the waiting room then went for their first visit with a woman who had been held captive for so long, she had fully retreated behind her animal self. They watched her moan as she grasped for consciousness. When she woke up, Esther was the first face she saw, causing her obvious confusion, but then she turned to Patrick and rose up off the bed in a rage. Nicola snarled and roared, and as Esther restrained her, Patrick held her face and spoke to her, trying to reconnect with the human side. It worked momentarily, and flashes of humanity came through, but it wasn’t enough, and the woman relapsed so hard that Patrick was forced to sedate her again. “It’s a start,” Esther said. “Not enough,” he snapped. “She could give birth at any time. She could shift at any time either. I haven’t done enough.” She took his hand and brought him into an empty room in the hospital, shutting the door behind her. “It was your first time trying,” she said. “It’s going to take time. Don’t give up.” “I’m just frustrated,” he said. “It’s heart-breaking to see a person act that way. I’ve never experienced anything like it.” “I know,” she said softly. “But the fact you care so much means you’re the right person to do this. She’ll get used to your face and understand that you don’t mean to hurt her, and one day soon, she’ll let the real her come through past the anger protecting her. She’ll let you help her when she’s ready, but you can’t give up.” He gazed at her, taking more than one meaning from her words. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t ever give up.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “I know you’re afraid of being tied down to a pack, and I know I scared you with talk of binding you to my pack, but really, all I want to do is bind myself to you, Esther. And when you’re ready for something like that, I’ll still be here.” She said something, but the words were muffled against his chest. It didn’t matter. The way her hands clutched his shirt as though she never wanted to let go meant more than any words could say. They spent nights together sleeping in the waiting room, long after Ava and Phoenix had given up. They showered at the hospital, spent all of their time with Nicola, and right before her first labour pains, they caught sight of a terrified woman trapped in a feral, pregnant body. It was then Patrick was able to truly help her, and it was then he was most glad that Esther was by his side. 16 Esther * * * It had been a heart-breaking week, but Patrick was finally getting somewhere with Nicola. As her labour progressed, Phoenix and Ava showed up to provide moral support, but I was barely aware of their presence. I was ready to help Patrick with whatever he needed. Watching him work with Nicola, coaxing her out of the prison she had made for herself, had convinced me that he was the right man for so many jobs. Patrick and I ended up in the labour ward with Nicola who was terrified to give birth alone. She had no idea who the father of the child was, and that was just an additional piece of cruelty. “How am I supposed to take care of a baby?” she said in between contractions, holding both of our hands tight. “You can do it,” Patrick said. “And if you don’t want to, you’ll know that the child will be taken care of by somebody else who will love the baby. No matter what you choose, we’ll be here for you.” She nodded, sweat dripping down her neck. “I think… oh, God, I think I’m going to shift!” “You’re not.” I heard the will in his voice. It was relentless. He had this. “You’re going to give birth first.” Nicola nodded again, grunting hard as another wave of pain hit her. She threw her head back, and I wondered why anyone would voluntarily go through so much pain. She pushed for what seemed like hours, but the midwife reassured us the labour was going at a decent pace. The blood and pain scared me. It seemed wrong somehow, but on that final push, when a child arrived, and Patrick held her in his arms as lovingly as a father, my insides melted, and I thought I understood. “A girl,” I whispered. “You have a girl.” And the mother wept, but she wasn’t alone. * * * “It’s a girl,” I told Ava and Phoenix when I left the labour ward and got cleaned up. “Mother and baby are doing fine. She didn’t shift during labour, so everything went well.” I wiped away a stray tear. “It was pretty overwhelming. We have to do this with each mother.” “We?” Ava said. “Oh.” I bit my lip. “I just can’t imagine leaving him to do it all alone. Should I?” Ava sighed, gave Phoenix a meaningful look, then pulled me aside for a chat. “Esther, what about Carl?” I stared at my feet. “I know he’s your friend, and you know I care about him, but it’s easy to hide behind Carl. He’s nice and sweet and good, but…” “He doesn’t light your fire.” “I don’t know how to talk to him about this. No matter what happens with Patrick, nothing’s ever going to happen with Carl. I can’t settle, not now that I know what it could be like.” “So you want to be with Patrick?” I met her piercing gaze. “I do. I don’t know if it has any chance of working out, but I want to be around him to find out.” “I’ll talk to Carl,” she said after a moment. “What?” “I’d said I’d talk to him. I’ll explain what happened. He won’t like it, but at least he’ll know for sure.” I studied her face. “Do you hate me?” She sighed. “Esther, if you could see your face right now… Listen, when we met, you were full of light and happiness and enthusiasm. Life sucked all of that fun out of you. I’ve been trying to protect you, but I can’t seem to help you find your way back to that girl. Patrick is able to do that for you. You light up around him, and you’ve come back to life again. You have this strength that few people have, and I started seeing it again when you met Patrick. I love Carl, and I hate that you’re going to hurt him, but I don’t want you to suffer. I want you to be happy, and Patrick is helping you be happy with who you are. You can’t change how you were born, and you can’t deny your heritage. So embrace it, learn to love it, and if it takes another shifter to help you get to that place, then so be it.” I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed. “Thank you.” “Carl’s my best friend,” she said sadly. “But you deserve to be happy, too. Go figure out what this thing is with Patrick. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll still be around. But it’s time to start living for the future and not the past. Helping these women has put a shine on you again that reminds me of the Esther I first met. I like her a lot, so… go on then.” “Thank you,” I whispered. “I’m going to head home and talk to Carl,” she said. “I’ll ask Phoenix for a lift. Let me know what you’re up to now and again, okay?” I nodded and watched her leave with Phoenix. I felt kind of crappy letting her talk to Carl on my behalf, but it was probably better coming from her. Plus, I was too exhausted to do much else. I returned to Patrick and asked to speak to him alone. “The baby’s asleep,” he said with a youthful grin. “One down. How many to go?” I smiled. “If you want the help, I’ll be here. If you want me to travel around the country to meet with shifters, I’ll do it. I need to learn how to be a shifter again, and I’m tired of being ashamed of who I am. If you can accept me as I am, then I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.” “Do you want to help the shifters or be with me?” he asked seriously. “Both,” I said. “Turning my back on the shifters didn’t make me happy either time I did it. Maybe if I had spent more time trying to change things then it all would have worked out better. I don’t want to hide anymore. I want to be part of good changes in this country.” I reached up and touched his cheek. “And I want to see if there’s anything in this mate business.” He grinned and kissed me. “So do I.”

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