Axel gripped my hand, lacing his fingers with mine as we stepped from the car and onto the red carpet. He was clearly nervous, but he wouldn’t admit it. For me, this was second nature, but to anyone who wasn’t familiar with this lifestyle, it was incredibly overwhelming.
The champagne-colored gown I was wearing cascaded around my ankles. The millions of Swarovski crystals that had been sewn into the fabric glittered as they captured the light. My hair was pinned up into an elegant style, which complimented my delicate features. Drawing attention to my sweetheart neckline was a daisy chain diamond necklace that Daddy bought me as a gift.
“Cast your eyes to the ground,” I prewarned Axel because the onslaught of camera flashes was always blinding. “Focus straight ahead and don’t stop until we reach the step and repeat.”
“The step and huh?” Axel looked completely bamboozled, not knowing what the heck was what.
“Just relax and just follow my lead,” I reassured, bracing my shoulders back to straighten my posture.
Despite him not feeling it, Axel oozed power and masculinity. He was dressed like a dream in his tailor-fitted black tuxedo, Armani shoes, white plaited button-down shirt, and bowtie.
His blond hair had been styled to one side and his clean-shaven face only emphasized his insanely handsome looks. He was every ounce the sex God shown in cologne commercials, but he was a real manly man beneath the suit, not just some actor, who pretended to be one.
Lights glittered from left to right amongst the sea of faces that blended together like one unfocused blur. Journalists called out our names but our advice was to ignore them for now, having given exclusive rights to Fox news—and no that wasn’t a coincidence.
My parents walked straight ahead of us, followed by my uncle Dolton, aunt Celia and my cousin, Sheena, who held onto her father’s arm. The seven of us walked proudly along the red carpet, putting up a united front. Amongst the questions that were fired at us, the harsh accusations that were flung at my cousin made my blood boil.
“Sheena, is it true that you tried to siphon funds from your charity and deposit them into a private, offshore account?”
Both Dad and uncle Dolton shot them down with thunderous glares.
“My daughter is the victim of a ruthless opportunist. Justice will prevail when we get our day in court. No further questions, please,” Dolton growled as aunt Celia quickly ushered my devastated cousin away.
Axel bowed his head to speak beside my ear, “You alright? You’re trembling.”
I was angry. No, even worse than that, I was livid. 'How a sleazy snake like Byron Valentine could weasel his way into my cousin’s affections, live lavishly on her wealth and feed his expensive habits'. His ‘doomed to fail’ real estate company was just a smokescreen. The guy was a conman who faked his way into her heart, then smashed it to a million pieces. Last night, during our telephone conversation, she told me everything. How he had cheated on her with his so-called secretary. How they had embezzled money from her personal bank account and tried to do the same with the charity funds.
When I say tried, I meant that Sheena had rumbled him before he could finish his plans. Only after she filed for divorce, with claims of his infidelity, did he come forward with a counterclaim of his own. Accusing her of conspiracy to theft. Sheena was sinking deeper and deeper into despair and it wasn’t over for her yet. Not by a long shot.
“I’ll be fine. It’s Sheena I’m worried about,” I told him, flashing a composed smile to confuse any onlookers.
We reached the backdrop of the step and repeat, stopping to pose before the shine-free vinyl. The five charity logos were printed in a repetitive sequence in shades of green, red, blue, purple, and orange. Our family founded charities that supported the homeless, terminally ill patients, children in the care system, young entrepreneurs, and victims of domestic abuse.
“You’re a natural,” I complimented Axel as he struck a pose that could’ve given a sports model cause for concern.
“It finally paid off, having to watch my three sisters hog the mirror every morning,” he muttered, all in good humor.
The press lapped him up like he was a free dessert from Serendipity 3. This was my night to show him off to the world, and boy, did I extract every opportunity. Even to the point of flashing my wedding finger so they got a good shot of his grandmother’s ring. Axel bit close to the bone when he patted my abdomen, thus, reinforcing the baby rumors. Instead of discouraging him, I let him continue. He was having fun, God love him, and so was I.
Dad held back and waited for us so he could escort us both to our table. We were seated right at the front of the stage in the Beverly Hilton function hall. The ceiling was concealed with a black cloth that glittered with twinkling lights to give the effect of a night sky. Blue neon lights lit up the ice sculptures that had been carved into elegant swans. Each table and chair had been covered with white silk cloth and blue organza bows were added to give a splash of color to the chair backs. Round mirrored tiles were placed beneath the crystal vase centerpieces and were filled with faux diamonds and bunches of white and blue peonies.
Axel’s name plaque was placed between mine and Uncle Dolton’s. Sheena sat beside me, whereas, Mom, Dad, and aunt Celia, sat facing us. Axel’s eyes scanned the room, searching amongst the hundreds of well-dressed bodies that filled each table. Curious eyes scorched holes into the back of my head, but I was too proud to care. My man was worth a billion of them, so I reached my hand over to his and took hold of it.
“Now it’s my turn to ask whether you’re OK?” I checked, noticing him begin to fidget.
He flashed me a nervous smile. “I’ll be alright, just give me a minute.”
A waiter placed down two ice buckets, containing four bottles of champagne. Then, he began to fill each of our glass flutes with the pale fizzy liquid.
Uncle Dolton caught Axel’s attention. “Knock back a few of those to take the edge off,” he advised, noticing how tense Axel was.
I was thrilled by how welcoming my family had been towards Axel. He was one of us now and we would take good care of him because that’s what we Griffiths’s do best. We protect what’s ours at all costs.
“Do you see anyone you recognize?” I asked Axel.
He glanced around with narrowed eyes, scanning the room with keen interest. “Is that...” he pointed, then held his chin in an observational pose as if deciding it wasn’t who he originally thought it was.
“Who?” I press further, following his line of sight.
“I thought I just saw Han Solo,” he mumbled, squinting, now that he wanted to check for sure.
“Oh, you mean Harrison Ford? He was invited so it’s possible,” I mentioned.
It was rude to point, but I managed a discreet head jerk to the left of us. “Don’t make it obvious, but Sly Stallone is sitting right over there.”
Axel sat bolt-upright in his seat as he searched.
“Whoa, so it is! It’s Rocky Balboa in the flesh! I gotta get his autograph for Beast.”
That made me chuckle. “I’ll introduce you, later,” I promised.
“Yes, please!” His expression brightened. “And Han Solo, don’t forget him, too.”
I couldn’t help the genuine laughter that came out of my mouth, sounding more like an ungraceful cackle. “Axel, you do know that those aren’t their real names, right?”
His brows bunched together. “Yeah, I knew that.” He picked up his champagne flute and drained the contents, in one.
His awkward behavior was telling me otherwise. Maybe that’s why he referred to Leo as the ‘Titanic guy’ the other day.
My Dad waved to his brother from across the table.
“Dolton, give Axel a top-up,” he encouraged.
He then leaned forward to speak to Axel. “I want you to enjoy yourself tonight, son. The auction is coming up after the announcement. Bid for whatever you want, it’s on me.”
Axel’s face paled. “Oh, I couldn’t.”
Mom swatted the air in dismissal. “Nonsense, have fun. Choose some wedding gifts to brighten up your cabin.”
I tapped Axel’s knee under the table and he flicked his shocked gaze to mine. “It’s all going to charity, anyway,” I reasoned.
He let out a nervous exhale. “Um, alright, if they’re sure.”
Even though I was blatantly aware of the intrusion of prying eyes, I ignored it. Instead, I engaged in a conversation with my cousin.
“So, you haven’t shifted yet?” Sheena mouthed, discreetly.
“Nope, have you?” I directed the question straight back at her.
She winced her eyes in an apologetic grimace. “Yeah, of course, I have. It wasn’t me with the human mom and the forest phobia.”
I rolled my eyes at her comment. “Well, duh! You still could’ve told me. We used to tell each other everything, and I thought I could trust you to always be straight with me.”
She recoiled back in her seat, looking more down-trodden and remorseful than before. “Sorry, I wanted to, but Uncle Carlton made me promise because aunt Sasha didn’t know about the likes of us. He bought me a pony to shut me up.”
My eyes rounded on her, accusingly. “Unbelievable. A freakin’ pony was all it took to buy your silence?”
She gave a small gasp, clutching her chest. “I was only a child, and I loved Butterscotch! He was adorable, not to mention, loyal. At least I could trust him not to run off with the filly from the paddock next-door.”
The sadness in her words felt like a stab of pain in my chest, and it was moments like these when I wished that I owned a Byron Valentine voodoo doll and an extra sharp pin. Axel pressed his lips together in a sympathetic smile as if he didn’t feel like it was his place to comment.
I picked up the champagne flute by the rim as I pointed, using the same hand in a dismissive gesture. “Ah, forget it, it’s fine. At least all’s well that ends well.”
“Yeah, I hope so,” Sheena muttered, grimly.
“It will be,” I told her. “You’ll see. What did you just say to me, earlier? That you’re selling your apartment here in the city and moving to Forest Lake.”
Sheena nodded. “Yeah, I’m currently house hunting. Mom and I are going to view a couple of places in Hawcroft, next week.”
Dad flicked his gaze to us. “Well, keep in mind that Dolton and I are collaborating on a project called Thornycroft. We always talked about branching out into real estate, and now we’re putting our long-awaited plans into action.”
“We sure are,” Dolton agreed.
“These are exciting times ahead,” Celia commented. “I can’t wait to take a look at the plans.”
“Yeah, we get to see those, next week,” Mom added. “The two of you always wanted to collaborate on something, didn’t you?”
Dad glanced around to check that the coast was clear, before choosing to speak. “What matters the most is family.” Dad expressed, sincerely. “Our community has forgotten that, just lately, and if we’re not careful, we’ll go the same way as the cats.”
Uncle Dolton agreed. “That’s right, Carl, we’re strengthening our community.” Like Dad, he kept his voice low as he spoke. “Fox families rarely have more than one cub at a time, and because we live in dangerous times, some don’t even bother having children at all. Our population is dwindling, so by building our own safe haven, we’re hoping to increase the numbers by over seventy-five percent.”
As Dolton delivered his comment, I felt the temperature in the room jump up a couple of notches. The unforgiving suit jacket became stifling, especially under the watchful gaze of Sasha Griffiths, the mother in law. I pulled at the collar of my shirt as if it held me in a chokehold.
“Seventy-five percent, huh?” My voice sounded abnormally weak, for a man of my size.
Dolton cocked his head with an assured smirk. “That’s what we’re hoping for,” he added, confidently.
Sasha’s eyes narrowed as she thought. “Speaking of which...” She cut in, straight after Dolton.
I closed my eyes in a momentary pause, feeling the dull, throbbing, pound of dread fill me the second Sasha made her comment with all the subtlety of a brick.
“When should I expect to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet? I assume you are trying, right?” All eyes landed on Riley and me and the room seemed to shrink to the size of a matchbox.
My words got jammed in my throat and I coughed, choking on air. The silence only lasted for a second, but it was one painstaking, God awful, I’d rather cut a nut off and roast it for supper, kind of silence.
A nervous laugh came out of Riley. “Mom.” Her voice was sweet but her eyes were throwing daggers.
Sasha shrugged. “It’s a valid question.” She then grasped the stem of her champagne flute, knocking back a large gulp.
Carlton cleared his throat, subtly. “Uh, Sasha, honey, we work a little differently in that respect.”
Both Sasha and Riley cast him doubtful frowns. “Dad, I’m fairly certain that our anatomies work in the exact same way,” she chuckled as if he had said something completely ridiculous.
Even Sasha rolled her eyes, then gave him a look of mock pity. “Don’t listen to your father, he’s talking through his ass. I’m a human and I conceived you naturally,” she looked to Riley as she spoke.
A trickle of sweat ran from my hairline and passed my ear. Fuck. Goddamned awkward social situations. That was precisely the reason I stayed in the woods. I wasn’t good with people, always saying or doing the wrong thing. I glanced down at the array of cutlery, all fanned out in size order and felt more anxiety bubbling.
“Riley hasn’t shifted in years. And as any shifter knows, a female who doesn’t shift regularly will find it impossible to conceive,” Carlton explained, much to Sasha’s horror, not to mention, Riley’s.
“Oh,” Riley’s brightened expression faltered. She flashed her eyes to mine momentarily, then down to the table. I noticed the light-hearted humor extinguish from them. “Well, that’s just awesome,” her voice trembled as she spoke.
I know we hadn’t known each other for long, and the prospect of having kids someday hadn’t exactly been the topic of conversation. But if there was ever a sign that Riley had thought that far ahead and wanted to bear my children, it was written all over her face. Right now, the distant sadness in her eyes was grieving for something that she couldn’t have. Something that all the wealth in the world couldn’t buy.
There was only one person I knew of who could help Riley with this problem. It wasn’t my mom with all her medical knowledge. She could fix anyone inside or out, but not this. Not something deep-rooted as Riley’s childhood trauma was. She needed therapy, and the human therapist she sought help from wasn’t the right kind of person to make contact with the animal within. After everything that happened recently, I was fairly certain that the person she needed would rather rot in Hell before she would agree to help us. That only made me feel more helpless.
“Um, Riley, why do we need all of this?” I asked, pointing at the cutlery to change the subject. For her and for myself.
Her glossy red lips formed an ‘O’. “Work from the outside, inward,” she said as if it was as simple as that. I glanced over my shoulder, hearing a guy snigger after my name was mentioned. Heads snapped away the second my eyes met with theirs.
My brows furrowed, hardening my gaze into a pissed off scowl. “The fuck, you looking at?” I muttered, agitated.
Neither one of the fancy-ass, trust fund jerks turned to answer. The dark-haired one, who snorted first, muttered something else to one of his pals, and they all began chuckling amongst themselves like a gaggle of geese. I wasn’t in the mood to be dealing with assholes like those. They’d been sniggering at me ever since I got here.
Riley’s soft fingers fanned out across the top of my clenched fist and I relaxed my shoulders and returning her a placated smile.
“Ignore them, babe,” she spoke with resolve. “They’re not worth your time or effort.”
That was true, but it was easier said than done. What with my ears twitching like radars picking up mashed up bits of conversation from different areas in the room. By the time I downed my fifth glass of—shit—I can’t even pronounce it. It’s Dom—something. Well, anyway, I was able to shut out all the background noise.
Course after course of microscopic portions came out, and I’m not shitting you, I had flushed bigger turds compared to some of the stuff I was served.
My shoulders dropped with a heavy sigh, scooping up the smudging of crushed green stuff and a cube of meat, then chowed it down in one. I scrunched my nose, witnessing Riley cut hers in half, then half again. It looked barely fucking visible as she brought the fork to her mouth, curve side round.
Once, twice, thrice, she chewed. All the while, I stared at her, flabbergasted. She then dabbed her napkin against the corners of her mouth that was already pristinely clean.
My stomach yelled at me from within, screaming out for some nourishment and I drowned it with another mouth full of fizzy liquid. After fifteen courses, I was still as hungry as fuck and half thinking of hauling my ass to the kitchens to ask whether or not they had any leftovers.
The room grew brighter and I glanced up and around me. “Oh look, the auctions starting,” Riley announced, nudging me.
My eyes hardened as they followed the smiling jerk as he took to the stage in some kind of goofy dance, stopping at the microphone and giving Riley finger guns. She blushed, rolling her eyes in embarrassment.
“Ladies and Gentlemen; on behalf of Griffiths Corp, I want to thank you for coming tonight,” he spoke humbly, placing his hand over his heart. I decided, that I hated him already.
The sound of applause filled the room and I felt obliged to join in, giving a begrudged slow clap. I watched through narrowing slits of fury as he kept glancing down at my wife. I saw his gaze flick to her chest and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. Hell-fire raced through my veins and I imagined leaping on stage and ripping his head clean off. The pounding pressure in my ears drowned out the sound of his voice and all I could hear was a rhythmic ‘thump-thump’.
“Babe?” Riley whispered, tapping my forearm.
“Huh?” I snapped out of my murderous trance, not realizing that my expression was twisting with rage.
Riley chuckled. “Babe, did you zone out? If you want to outbid these guys, you have to focus.”
I gave a disgruntled nod, making a disinterested face. “Fine.”
After another bottle of fizz and a couple of ugly paintings later, things started to look a whole lot better. I’m not just talking about the double-vision. The next lot had my eyes popping out on stalks.
“Ladies and gents, what we have here is a beaded fringe jumpsuit, owned by ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ Mr. Elvis Presley, himself,” Titanic boy, announced.
“Holy shit!” I spoke my thoughts out loud.
Riley tapped my arm, excitedly. “You got this, babe,” she encouraged.
I picked up the number thingy that looked a lot like a spanking paddle that I found in Riley’s bed stand, and held it up.
“Axel, wait for it to start,” Riley muttered, pushing my arm back down.
The baby faced dude on the stage pointed my way as he voiced, “Someone’s keen.”
I rolled my eyes, anxious to get on with it. I forced a half-assed smile that was gone in a flash.
“I’m starting the bidding at twenty-five,” he announced.
My brows lifted with surprise. “Twenty-five dollars? What a bargain.” I raised the paddle in the air.
Riley subtly scratched her nose, leaning into me. “Not dollars—thousands,” she muttered.
My eyes bulged out of their sockets. “Shit a brick!” I coughed, trying to conceal my involuntary outburst.
There were polite smiles given from all around our table, while I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole. Before I knew it, there was an all-out bidding war for the jumpsuit. Especially when it was announced that it still had Elvis’s sweat patches under the arms and crotch.
“Who will give me one and a half?” The King Of The World yelled into the microphone.
Riley forced my elbow up and the paddle almost flew out of my hand.
“Going once, going twice—Sold! For one and a half million dollars. To the abnormally huge guy, sitting at the front!” he announced, pointing at me.
There were victorious cheers from around our table and I was left panting for air the moment I heard the price.
“Congratulations, babe!” Riley expressed, with an ecstatic grin.
Air forced its way through my throat in place of words, making me sound like a punctured squeaky toy. I didn’t even notice the A-lister jump down from the stage and approach our table.
“I believe this belongs to you.” He produced the jumpsuit and I turned suddenly as if startled.
“Thank you very much,” I joked, in an impersonation of my idol.
I held the soft material between my fingers as if frightened it may disintegrate. This was a precious artifact to me and I intended to treasure it forever, even though I was tempted to try it on for size. It was stretch fabric, after all.
Babyface leaned into Riley with puckered lips and the world seemed to slow right down. My eyes flared as wide as saucers, and I thrust my hand out with the jumpsuit clasped firmly in it, to where Mr frisky inadvertently planted a smackerooney straight against Elvis’s sweaty crotch stain.
In my head, angels flew down from the heavens and sang ‘Halleluiah’ harmoniously. He grimaced, spluttering and picking the fluff off his tongue.
“Riley, long time no see.” His eyes dropped to hers in a smoldering gaze, having chosen to bring her hand up to his lips, instead.
Riley’s other arm snaked around my waist. It was a subtle reminder that she chose me above all else.
“Oh, you know me.” She shrugged, playfully. “I’ve been busy.”
“Too busy for an old friend.” He winked, suggestively. “You had a lot of fun on my yacht if I remember correctly.”
Riley laughed off his comment, whereas, I saw it for what it was. He was trying to mark his territory—With my wife!
In the animal kingdom, that would’ve been deemed as a challenge. Cats would spray their pheromones all over the place and claw each other’s eyes out. Dogs usually pissed up trees and would rip one another limb from limb, but bears... We did more than snatch your picnic baskets and chase you through the woods. We'd have ourselves a five-star banquet, then we'd pick our teeth with your bones. And there I go again, thinking about food.
I didn’t have the energy to fight tonight. My stomach was slowly digesting itself from the inside out. That only made me more and more cranky, and when I got cranky, the sarcasm only intensified.
“Listen here, Jack, you really wanna crash into this iceberg?” I tapped my fingertips against my chest. “You’re the last person that my wife wants to be out on a boat with. You think you can charm your way into her pants with your movie star status and your pity oscar, but you know what?” I jabbed my finger at him, hating how the smug fucker was still grinning at me.
“Enlighten me?” He answered, finding my reaction highly amusing.
I scowled like a petulant kid who was guarding his favorite toy. “You can’t have her,” I growled. “We have something that you’ll never have, and after she had a taste of that, it's safe to say that she will let you go, Jack.”
Riley’s face turned an abnormal shade of crimson.
“Axel.” She eye signaled for me to shut up. "You're misunderstanding."
“I see,” Jack replied, giving an exaggerated blink. “Riley, please excuse me.” He flashed a humble smile. “—but I wanted to introduce you to my fiancé.”
I gave a double-take, feeling the air rush back to me in abundance. “S’cuse me? Did you just say, fiancé?”
Right at that point, a tall, leggy blonde walked over to him and attached herself to his side. It was at that moment that I excused myself to go in search of the bathroom.
“Idiot,” I muttered, under my breath, having just humiliated myself, once again.
He was probably a really nice guy, and now it would seem, that I was the jerk. I hated having to apologize, but I guess I'd take a moment to recover and swallow my pride before doing the unthinkable.
The staff, who were dressed in black and white waiter uniforms, hurried back and forth with trays of drinks. I snatched a glass of scotch that was probably meant for someone else and chugged it down in three fiery mouthfuls.
Another waiter gave a look of utmost disgust as I placed the empty glass down on his tray.
I still had Elvis’s jumpsuit draped over my arm as I swaggered down the hall, placing one foot in front of the other, not knowing where the hell I was going. A one and a half million dollar suit. I stopped dead in my tracks, pinching the corners of my eyes and chuckling to myself.
The fuck am I doing here?
“Axel?” I heard a voice in front of me that made my heart stop dead.
My eyes opened in an instant and I slowly moved my hand away, uncovering my face. I wasn’t imagining things. It was her alright. My so-called best friend, Rebecca King. She was dressed in a waiters uniform and looked just as out of place as I felt.
“You look good,” she commented, fidgeting awkwardly and barely able to look me in the eye.
The remorse was evident in her puffy, watery eyes and I detected a stab of hurt in her strained voice.
“Can’t say the same for you,” I replied, coolly.
She looked down at the badly fitted uniform and shrugged. “I borrowed it so that the press could sneak me inside.”
My eyes darted around, shocked. “The what?” I flinched back as if burned.
“Haven’t you done enough?” I eyed her accusingly, livid that she was in cahoots with the press, of all people.
She stumbled towards me, only to hesitate. Rebecca's eyes glanced at something behind me, then flared wide. Her lips quivered as if finding it difficult to speak, and that was when I felt a hand at the base of my back.
“Babe, I was worried you'd gotten lost,” Riley spoke, keeping her voice controlled but her gaze was fixed firmly on the woman in front of us.
There was a momentary pause where time stood still. Riley was like a coiled snake, just waiting for an excuse so that she could spring to attack.
Rebecca took a deep breath, placing a trembling hand against her chest. “I begged them to sneak me in here because I just wanted to say that I was sorry,” she explained, regretfully. “I’m not asking for your forgiveness. I was jealous and selfish and what I did was awful. But what I’m really trying to say, is that you deserve to be happy. You’re a really good guy, Axel. You won't hear from me again. Take care, okay?”
Rebecca turned on her heel and bolted for the door. Riley turned to me, rubbing my shoulder in a comforting gesture.
“You should go after her,” she encouraged.
I scrunched my brows, turning to her with a frown. “Huh? You what?” I asked, hardly believing what she was saying.
Riley seemed to understand something that I didn't. “She fell in love with a great guy, who didn't reciprocate those feelings. She's broken-hearted. I could see it as clear as day.” She took hold of the jumpsuit. “I’ll hang onto this. You can’t just go running around with a million dollar suit.”
“Even after everything she's done?” I asked, surprised by her compassion. I knew that the answer to our future lay in, whether or not, Rebecca would help Riley to shift, but I was shocked more than anything, by how much Rebecca's actions had hurt me as much as they did. Seeing her face-to-face only made things seem much more real.
Riley sighed. “Axel, do you want the chance to save your friendship or not? I saw how much she hurt you and I saw the look on her face when she let you go, just now. Maybe you could salvage a lifetime of happy memories or maybe you can’t. But at least you can say that you gave it your best shot.”
I lowered my face to hers and stole a kiss from the most amazing woman in the world. “I love you,” I told her, with everything I had.
She twisted her lips in a sappy half-smirk. “I love you, too.”
I braced myself for the ambush of camera flashes as I chased after Rebecca. I saw her flee past the press, covering her face from view.
She got as far as the edge of the red carpet, then hesitated like a deer caught in the headlights.
“Mr. Thorne, what’s your relationship with Miss King?” One reporter asked.
I glanced back to answer, just as Rebecca turned around, distraught.
“We’re not in a relationship!” She yelled back in response, answering for me.
“She’s my best friend and she’s pissed that I didn’t invite her to the wedding.” I spun them a line, in the hope they bought it.
Rebecca sniffed, wiping her tear-soaked face. “What are you doing out here, Axel?” She stared at me, defeatedly.
“We need to talk,” I told her straight, holding out the olive branch.
The camera flashes were coming at us from all angles, so I ushered Rebecca into a waiting limousine, thinking that it was the same one we arrived in. Only, it wasn’t.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the vehicle,” the chauffeur spoke through the window divider.
I held a relaxed palm in front of me. “I’m sorry, this will only take a second.” I looked to him, pleadingly. "Those guys are vultures out there."
“You got two minutes, the clock is ticking,” he replied, in a warning tone.
Rebecca wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt, leaving a streak of black mascara along the crisp white cuff.
“I’ll go first,” I volunteered.
Her grey eyes flicked to mine and she quickly nodded. “Okay.”
“I never meant to hurt you,” I told her, sincerely. “You’re like a sister to me.”
Rebecca’s expression was penitent as she held my gaze. “I’m sorry that I tried to kiss you, okay? It was a dumb move and I wish I could take it back, ” she blurted out in a contrite tone.
“I’m talking first,” I reminded her, tapping a finger against my chest. “You always do that when I’m talking. Call yourself a therapist.”
Rebecca exhaled with a forceful huff, allowing me to continue. Whenever she asked me a question, she always answered it for me, not giving me the chance to answer for myself. She complained that I was too vague and that she could read me like a book.
“You know I love you, right?” I picked up her hand and held it in mine. “But just not like that.” I held her gaze, taking a candid approach. "We talked about this, remember? I really hope that we can put things back to how they were."
We’d been friends ever since we were cubs. She was the girl-next-door. The one I used to make mud pies with, camp out in my tree-house, name the worms we collected, and pull pranks on my sisters together. We used to ride our bikes to school together every day since we were old enough to walk to school alone. We were inseparable, like two halves of the same whole, but just not in the way that she hoped.
But cutting a long story short, she was my best friend. One who I could talk to about anything. Even when I woke up at three a.m, struggling to sleep, we would talk via the string telephone that ran from my room to hers. I could look out of my bedroom window and she would be there, waving back at me. We used to tell each other all our secrets, and ever since we let things come between us, there was this emptiness that would never go away.
“I know,” she replied, softly. “I guess I was scared that I was going to lose you. But then I messed it all up and lost you anyway,” she admitted, flicking her gaze to mine.
“You didn’t lose me,” I scoffed, rolling my eyes.
“Yes, I did,” Rebecca disagreed, adding emphasis to her words. “You took up that ranger's post out of town. You wouldn’t have taken that job if it weren’t for me.”
I winced my eyes, feeling the truth sink in. I did run away from my problems. After I came back from Stonevale and the severity of what happened there hit home. It made everyone anxious about the future and what might hold.
“I did what I thought was best at the time. You were acting all crazy, talking about biological clocks and shit!” I shrugged.
“Axel?” Rebecca jerked back, offended. "I was scared, and acting irrationally. I wasn't thinking straight and I panicked."
“Times up!” The chauffeur yelled.
“One more minute,” Rebecca pleaded. "Here, here's fifty dollars for your trouble."
“Fine,” he huffed, reaching his hand through the gap in the divide to accept the cash.
Rebecca turned back to me. “I know what I did ruined things. I was scared that you weren’t gonna make it back after the hunter invasion, and when you did I was so relieved. Then it made me worry about the death toll and the fact that we hadn’t found our mates yet. There was a strong possibility that they could’ve been killed and I panicked. I wasn’t thinking straight. Then, when I saw you had found your mate and I hadn’t....” Rebecca’s eyes downturned, brimming with tears.
"You were jealous," I answered for her this time.
"I was—stupidly," she admitted. "But I had no right to be. I acted impulsively when I called the cops. I regretted it as soon as I did it. My feelings for you were confused and those lines were blurred even more when I worried about your safety. I see that now. I just hope that it's not too late to put things right again."
“He’s out there somewhere,” I reassured, in an attempt to console her.
Rebecca chuckled, doubtfully. “I don’t think so. Look at me. I’ve got absolutely nothing to offer anyone.”
I half snorted. “And you think I do? Hell, I’m not worth shit, and I bagged a billionaire for a wife.”
Rebecca’s eyes bulged.
“And you wanna hear something else? This is the guy who doesn’t spend more than ten bucks on a shirt, and who’s owned the same pairs of jeans for almost eight years.” I pointed to myself. “Tonight, I just bought one of Elvis’s costumes for one and a half million dollars.”
“Holy shit!” Rebecca choked on her words.
Even the chauffeur gave a low whistle from up front.
“I know, right?” I agreed.
“Do you think your wife hates me?” Rebecca asked, out of the blue.
I winced my eyes, scrunching my nose. “Nah.” I swatted the air, hardly convincing myself with how I answered.
Rebecca ran a hand down her face. “Yes, she does. I called the cops to try and get rid of her. All because I thought I was jealous and I wanted you back.”
"So you don't think of me in that way anymore?" I checked, wincing my eyes.
"God no!" Rebecca shuddered. "The cops showing up to arrest you was a wake-up call."
I struggled really hard not to laugh at that comment. This was what I hoped to hear: that she no-longer harbored a romantic desire for me, what so ever, and that the idea of us being intimate was just as repulsive and gross as I thought.
“Well, I think you really ought to apologize. I really think that would help,” I urged, straight-faced.
“Okay,” Rebecca said, as she attempted to open the door to leave.
“Not to Riley, to me!” I glared, with an air of indignance. “It was me who got tased to the ground and it was my ass that got thrown into jail.”
“I’m sorry!” she pleaded. “Whatever you want me to do—to prove, just say it and I’ll do it,” her eyes widened with sincerity.
I folded my arms, trying to remain composed. The look on her face was priceless and I wished I could've taken a photo for proof. “Well it’s funny you should say that, Becca, because I do have a favor to ask. And with you being a therapist, I was kind of hoping that you could help me out with something."
“Uh-oh, what is it?” she asked, bracing herself for the worst.
“Riley was traumatized during her first shift and hasn’t shifted since. Do you think you could help with that?” I asked, getting straight to the point.
I saw the understanding begin to settle within her eyes and I could tell that she understood the importance of what I was asking.
“Of course, but we’re in the city, Axel. My kind of therapy only works best in our natural habitat,” Rebecca replied with a keen response, although, pointing out the difficulty we were in.
"The woods?” I asked, cocking my head to one side.
“Yeah, the woods. Why? Is there a problem?” she asked, shrugging her shoulders, completely oblivious to the challenge I was about to present to her.
I narrowed my eyes questioningly. “How sorry are you?”