Alpha Queen by Callie Rose
I standwith my face turned toward the early morning sun as it shines over the forest bordering the northern edge of East Pack lands.
Somewhere nearby, perched in the trees, several chickadees whistle at each other and then flutter around like tiny wisps of light, while deeper in the forest, I can sense a herd of deer passing quietly—all of them aware that a couple hundred predators lie sleeping just beyond their woodland protection.
The scene should be idyllic. I should be floating on cloud nine right now—I’m in love with four beautiful men, with a home to call my own and this glorious morning all around me. The sky is on fire, an aurora of pinks and golds being chased away slowly as the light blue overtakes them. My sharpened shifter senses mean I can smell everything, hear everything, even feel the sun’s heat on my skin with more intensity, feel the cool breeze off the mountains like a lover’s caress. Maybe if I could stumble through life wearing rose-colored glasses, I’d be in a better place right now.
Instead, I’m a ball of nerves thinking over everything that’s happened in the past few weeks, and all the twists and turns I took to be standing here right now. I can’t stop thinking about where I could have done things differently. Where things went wrong. Where things went right.
There’s a twitch in my left eye from the effort it takes to keep Cleopatra, the sociopathic coven leader, out of my damn head. Black streaks ripple beneath the scars on my arms as my magic responds to my constant anxiety, and just seeing that crap sends my heart into palpitations.
A couple days ago, this area was a makeshift morgue stacked with bodies from both sides of the battle. Remnants of that day have stuck around, even through all the cleanup, which has been ongoing since the moment the witches retreated. The grass still shows blackened, broken patches where it was charred by magic. Many of the trees lining the clearing have been blasted, leaving deep gashes where their limbs should grow.
A giant circle nearby is rust-colored from where someone fell and soaked the ground in blood. I hate to even imagine whether it was a shifter or a witch, since every shifter death weighs heavily on me. Even though I know the shifter and witch animosity goes back much, much further than my arrival here, as someone who carries the blood of both in her veins, I feel perfectly placed for guilt.
The sun shining on the East Pack’s village can’t cleanse the ground of the devastation wrought by the witches.
It also can’t cleanse the witch blood from my body.
But dwelling on the destruction and my own insecurities isn’t going to help me get my head on straight. The most important thing right now is that I keep Cleo out of my mind, which means not letting myself get distracted or too worked up over things I have no control over.
I sense his presence drawing close long before he’s anywhere near me. It’s like salvation coming toward me, and I close my eyes to listen to the soft thunder of his footsteps with my shifter hearing. He moves with a sure-footed, slow, almost lazy grace, like a man comfortable in his own body. Then his mountain-pine scent washes over me, and his arms wrap around me from behind.
I sink back against his strong chest, relishing his touch and the strength he gives me just by being close. His arms snake all the way around my body, and he holds me tight.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
With my eyes still closed, I clasp his arms with both hands and let my fingers dance across his skin. “I’m okay.”
He lets out a low snort of laughter. “Liar.”
Warm breath gusts through my hair as he nuzzles me a little. Then he grabs a handful of my t-shirt and turns me around, readjusting his arms around me so that we’re chest to chest.
Opening my eyes, I gaze up at him, my heartbeat picking up a distinct rhythm. Faster, lighter, a kind of surprised beat that still says holy crap, this man is mine.
He’s so damn handsome, with his scruffy appearance and those odd but gorgeous honey-colored eyes. He looks like the same old Ridge, but there’s an air to him that seems to match how I feel right now. Maybe it’s the look of exhaustion in his eyes, or the worry creasing the skin between his brows. Either way, he looks as strung out as I feel.
None of us have really slept lately.
Ridge twines the fingers of one hand in my blonde hair, a small grin curving his lips. “That’s on me. I shouldn’t have asked a question I already knew the answer to. The answer most certainly isn’t ‘I’m okay.’”
I laugh, but it’s a tired, forced sound. Emotions bubble up inside me, threatening my tenuous control over the barrier in my mind. I rest my forehead against his chest and take several deep breaths, breathing him in, bracing myself against his solid strength because it’s the only thing keeping me on my feet.
He gives me time to center myself without even being asked.
Finally, I sigh and straighten to catch his gaze again. “I’m getting by. But, Ridge, it’s terrifying trying to guard the perimeter of my mind all the time. If I slip up even a little, Cleo could get through. She could reach us. Find out our secrets. Even hurt me.”
I don’t voice my worst fear—that if she does get back through, she’d kill me.
She hasn’t been back in my mind, nor has she managed to pull me into that strange, cave-like place on the astral plane again, but I figure it’s only a matter of time before she tries. Honestly, I don’t even know what’s keeping her away at this point. It could be my protections, which are by no means strong or powerful since I’m hardly half a witch at this point with barely any training to my name. Or it could just be that Cleo herself hasn’t decided to come back.
“Keep your barriers in place, and we’ll work out the rest,” Ridge says gently.
“I’m trying.” I grit my teeth, a note of irritation crawling into my tone. It’s not directed toward Ridge though, and he seems to understand that. “I’m trying to block my mind from invasion, but it’s incredibly difficult. Plus, I can’t even tell if it’s actually working. It takes so much constant focus. I feel like I’m walking through the day trying to do complex math in the back of my head all the time. I can’t fucking concentrate on anything.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?”
“No.” Sinking back into his chest, I take comfort in the warmth flowing from his body and the scent of his golden skin. “It’s just wearing on me. It’s only been a couple days, and it’s like my mind is shattering under the pressure. I don’t know how long I can keep this up.”
My voice cracks on the last word, and his whole body tenses. I can almost feel his emotions racing through the mate bond between us—anger, frustration, love, determination. As far as he’s concerned, his mate is hurting, and it’s his job to ease her pains, but he has no idea how to deal with something like this. The wolves have harnessed some minor protection sigils for their own use over the years, but when it comes to something this major, they have no answers. This is witch magic, through and through.
Instead of giving me cheap platitudes or promises we’ll both know are lies, Ridge tilts my face up to his and kisses me. The soft warmth of his lips on mine is a hell of a lot better than some silly reassurance that “it’s going to be okay.”
He pulls away entirely too soon, and I leave my face tilted up toward his, hoping he’ll come back for more. He does, unable to resist the pull between us, and for a few more moments, nothing exists but the feel of our lips moving together.
Finally, he squeezes me against his chest and tucks a lock of hair behind my ear as he says gruffly, “You won’t have to keep up the barriers for long, little wolf. We’re going to deal with Cleo sooner rather than later.”
A muscle clenches in his jaw, and I stare at it, fascinated by the way it turns his face even more ruggedly handsome. I don’t think any of my mates have quite gotten over what it looked like when I was passed out on the floor in the council meeting. When Cleo dragged me into that cave and attacked me, she yanked my astral self from my body. She was killing me; I’m sure of it. And God only knows what my body was doing back in the real world. From the way my mates have tripped all over themselves to tend to my every need since, I imagine it wasn’t pretty.
I’m bracing myself for the idea that she’s going to do it again. How many more tries will it take before she succeeds in killing me?
Ridge must be able to read my thoughts by my expression, because he cups my face and swoops back down for another kiss. This one is fiercer, like he’s going to try to chase all my bad feelings away with just his lips.
To be fair, if it wasn’t a life or death kind of thing, he’d probably be able to do it.
I lose myself in the sensation of his silken mouth and the rasp of his calloused fingers against the bare skin of my back under my shirt. His lips make me forget, if only for a minute, but they can’t make me release my threadbare control over the barrier in my mind.
Even when being treated to a scorching kiss, I can’t let go.
We’re both breathing hard when he pulls away. He presses his forehead to mine, his voice rough and low. “We’ve only just found you, Sable. There’s no way in hell we’ll let Cleo take you from us. She’ll die trying.”
For a long, long moment, we stand there, foreheads together, catching our breath as a mountain breeze swirls around us and makes music in the trees. I wish we could stay here forever, but we have three packs, an entire village of grieving wolves, and an uncertain future to face. So eventually, Ridge offers me his hand, and I let him wrap his strong fingers around mine and lead me back into the heart of the village.
“What’s on the agenda today?” I ask when we get close to the first row of cabins. Shifters are everywhere, spilling out of doorways, sitting on lawn chairs, sweeping up the roads. The East Pack is the smallest by far, and now that all three packs are occupying this same space, the village runneth over.
“Pack meeting tonight,” Ridge says grimly, “so brace yourself for that chaos.”
“Oh, yay.” I let out a sigh that blows my hair from my face. “And what’s going on until then? Can I help with clean up somewhere?”
“Actually, I think you have a stronger need somewhere else.” He glances over at me, honey burning with sympathy and sorrow. “Archer is at his father’s house.”
My heart aches at the mere mention of Malcolm. The East Pack alpha was already at death’s door from a terminal illness when he gave his life protecting me during the battle. But that did little to ease the pain of his passing. His entire pack is hurting—his son most of all.
“What’s he doing?” I ask, glancing in the direction of Malcolm’s house.
“Getting up to speed on some of the things Malcolm took care of as alpha,” Ridge says, and I nod because that sounds about right. Archer would need to know all aspects of the job, not just the things he stood in for while his father was ill. “But also going through his possessions.”
“Oh, no. So soon?” Even I can hear the dismay in my voice. My heart squeezes painfully as I think of Archer sitting in the dusty living room, going through old photo albums and the accumulated belongings of a long, happy life. He’s hardly had time to deal with Malcolm’s death, and I know the grief is still raw. He shouldn’t be sorting out his father’s things already.
Ridge makes a noise of agreement. “I think you should go be with him. He’s going to need you.”
I nod, then rise up on my tiptoes to kiss his scruffy cheek. “Thank you for coming to find me.”
He catches my chin with his fingers, turning his head to kiss me on the lips. “Always, little wolf.”
Our lips linger for one second longer before we break apart. Then, gathering the meager threads of my strength, I change direction and head across town toward Malcolm’s house, hoping I’m not too late to keep Archer from falling apart.