After the night we had, I lounged with my legs up on the patio chair whilst staring distantly out at the brochure-perfect garden. The gentle morning breeze fanned my face, contrasting with the hot steam of my coffee as I brought the mug to my lips to take a sip. Hot versus cool, just like the atmosphere that creates thunder up in the clouds. It mirrored my mood, sullen and irritable, having spent the night facing outward in bed, while my husband tried relentlessly to butter me up. I figured creeping had never been Axel’s forte. And the way I was feeling last night, he could fuck off to Graceland all on his lonesome. ‘Suggesting I accompany Rebecca King to a forest retreat.’
Who the fuck gives him these ideas?
The mental image alone, makes me want to piss my pants with terror. ‘Shifting in the forest’. That was the one and only nightmare that had been branded into my subconscious and some fancy therapist had been paid to slap a big fat bandaid on top of it. For a hefty price, may I add? And now, Rebecca King wanted to rip said bandaid off, without so much as a count to three.
“You gonna’ sulk out here all day?” Axel’s deep baritone voice floated past my ear from behind.
I released a heavy sigh, hating having ignored him since he suggested the outrageous idea.
“I haven’t decided yet,” I answered, still staring dead ahead, noticing all the dead crickets that were floating around the edges of the pool.
R.I.P Jimminy, where the fuck were you when I could’ve used the voice of reason?
“About what?” He asked, testing my turbulent waters to see if it was safe to dip in a toe.
I rolled my eyes and took another sip of my coffee, figuring that he could wait a little longer for me to dignify him with an answer. “About whether or not I’m going to stay in this mood,” I replied, eventually.
He made a huffing noise, which suggested that he was getting frustrated with my snappy behavior. “Baby, it’s like I told you. If you want to have a family, you have to learn how to shift. Mother nature just needs to give your hormones a kick-start, that’s all.”
I let that thought swim around my head again, not that it ever floated away, not really. It was so typical. The one thing I never wanted, was now the only thing that I craved, and all my wealth and power couldn’t buy it for me. Hell, I was ruthless when I wanted to be. Shrewd and then some. I could strut my stuff in a boardroom full of trust fund jerks and come out on top of the food chain, having them eat from the palm of my hand. But this...what if it didn’t work? If I get my hopes up and it turns out to be a monumental disaster, then I would be destroyed. Yes, of course, I would. I’m a hardened bitch, not heartless. I knew I could lick my wounds and flip my Ice Queen switch and carry on with life regardless, but could he? If things don’t go according to plan, the way Axel seems to think it will, then he will be crushed, and I don’t think that I can live with that.
“I’ll think about it,” I offered, being the best answer I could muster right now.
He paused for a moment before he replied. I couldn’t see his face but I thought I heard him exhale a little sigh of relief. “Well, don’t think too long. Your flight leaves tonight.”
That grabbed my attention like a bucket of ice-cold water being thrown over my head. It had me whipping my head around to see him leaning casually against the doorframe. All he had on was a pair of my dad’s lounge-shorts, and a ‘just rolled out of bed look’...damn. It was like he didn’t even have to try.
“My flight?” I reiterated, needing a little more clarity. “As in, just me and not you?”
He raised his brows, looking pleasantly surprised by my display of interest. “Not exactly,” he added, scrunching his nose.
I internally groaned, figuring that there would be a catch.
“You and Becca will be traveling together.” He saw my face flood with horror and added. “It’ll give you two a chance to bond. She’s a lot like you in some ways,” he remarked. “She’s clever and shit, is what I meant,” he finished with a nice save.
“So it’s Becca now, huh?” I muttered, attempting to conceal the jealousy in my voice. “Yesterday, it was Rebecca and now you’ve shortened her name. That means you’ve mended your little rift, I take it?”
He chuckled, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Well, that all depends,” he threw in casually. “If she can help you then all’s square between us and I’ll be willing to forgive and forget.”
There was an unmistakable look of longing hanging over him, like everything hung by a millimeter thick thread. Axel wasn’t a pushover. But I could see that he was desperate for this to work in his favor. He couldn’t allow Rebecca to walk away from her actions scot-free, commanding a certain level of respect from the ones he counted as friends because he showed them the same level of courtesy. Shit! There it was again...another reason why he was a better person than me.
“Do you want me to try?” I asked, like the coward I was, needing him to be the one to reinforce my choice.
“Do you want to try?” He deflected the question back at me.
My eyes winced as I expected as much. “I’ll do it for you,” I delivered a heartfelt gesture.
I would willingly walk over hot coals for this man. I would dive headfirst into a pit of snakes or donate all of my clothing to charity and wear potato sacks from now on, (not that I would ever tell him any of this, through fear that he would expect me to follow through with it.)
“No, if you’re going to do it, then you’ll do it for us,” he corrected me.
I nodded and he smiled a genuine smile, one that reached his eyes and sparkled there. Axel was a good man who deserved better... he deserved a mate who would go to the end of the earth, just to keep that glint in his eyes.
I held out my hand, making a grabbing motion for him to come to me. He obeyed, not taking a second longer than he had to, to think it over. “I’m sorry,” I apologized as his fingers clasped with mine. Remorse blazed like a ball of heat in my chest, burning its way up my throat like a fiery trail.
He scooped me up, then nestled down beside me. “It’s okay,” he responded, seeming to understand, not that it made my guilt lessen any. It just cleared the distance between us, meaning that we could draw a line under last night's fiasco.
“I’m just scared,” I admitted, resting my head against his bare chest. I could feel the rhythmic thumping of his heart, beating out a languid pattern as if nothing ever fazed him at all. “What if I can’t learn how to shift or what if I do and it makes no difference? The damage might’ve been done, back when I was seven.”
He removed the mug from my hands and set it down on the ground. I fidgeted with my hands, now that they had nothing to do. Axel curled his body around mine, wrapping his strong arms around me. Such a simple token of support was enough to make me feel safe and loved. I felt his lips pucker against my cheek, then he dragged in a lungful of air through his nose. I knew that he too thought that this was a possibility, but the fools hope was all the encouragement he needed, in order to give it a shot. I owed it to him, and to myself to at least try.
“She’s good at what she does, babe, or else I wouldn’t have asked for her help.” He sounded genuinely sincere about that.
So, who knew that the shifterverse had its own answer to Dr. Phil? Maybe Rebecca King was actually a good person beneath all the proprietorial shit she pulled or maybe she intended to murder me in the woods. Who knows? I guess there was only one way to find out.
“I guess, I better go and pack,” I responded, grimacing through lack of enthusiasm.
“And I ought to do the same,” Axel mentioned, piquing my interest once again.
“Where are you going?” I narrowed my eyes with an air of spousal suspicion.
Axel made an excited chuckling noise in the back of his throat, which made him sound like a kid that’d been let loose in a toy store. “I’m not letting those tickets to Graceland go to waste,” he protested.
“You’re going on your own?” I scoffed.
“No,” he dragged out the word. “I have a traveling companion. One who appreciates the king and his creative legacy.”
I frowned. “Who?” I spat out the word, wondering who on earth was insane enough to accompany him on his fanboy tour.
“Beast,” he answered, straightfaced.
I blinked, waiting for the punchline...which never came.
“The big scary, tattooed guy who looks as if he eats fully grown men for breakfast? That guy is a shifter version of The Hulk!” I blurted out in shock.
Axel found that analogy amusing and chuckled. “You think he’s like The Hulk, huh?” I detected a hint of envy in his voice. “He used to be as skinny as my little finger,” he held it up as evidence. “But all those years in the cage made him bulk up some,” he explained, leaving me clueless as to what the fuck he was on about.
“The cage?” I questioned, narrowing my eyes. “As in prison?”
Axel shook his head, widening his eyes. “Nah-ah, not the type of prison you’re thinking about but you’re not far off wrong,” he stated, turning his posture so that we were sitting comfortably. “The cage is a fighting arena in the Hawcroft underground. You see, Forest Lake has its good point’s as well as its bad. We have drug lords and cartels the same as anywhere, only, these are the shifter kind.”
I listened intensively as he continued. “Kian, or Beast, as anyone else knows him was once caught up dead center of it. It took him a while to get out but when he did, he wasn’t the same guy anymore. He was different. He’d become...”
“The Beast,” I interjected, figuring that much for myself. “So how come he landed a job with the United Shifter Council?” I asked, unable to connect the dots.
Axel told me about them fighting side-by-side in Stonevale but I struggled to understand how an ex-underground cage fighter became a legitimate fighter, only to wind up as a gun runner in some criminal biker gang, then somehow managed to end up as a general of the combined shifter military. That was some life journey. It just goes to show that anyone had the ability to change their fate. Life was full of opportunities and choices. It was ultimately down to us to choose the right path.
“Yeah, he thought he’d forfeit his soul to the devil himself the day he took a man’s life,” Axel explained. “He got himself into a mess and he got himself out of it. If you could call joining the Blood Moon Bears any better. Still, it put him in the hands of Throttle, the president of the notorious biker gang and kept him out of reach of The Reaper.”
“Death?” I gasped. “Someone wanted him dead?”
Axel exhaled a dark chuckle. “As good as,” he replied. “The Reaper Cartel runs Forest Lake’s underground. He’s not a force to be fucked with, babe.” There was not a hint of amusement flickering within Axel’s eyes, which meant that he was being deadly serious. “The only one strong enough to keep him down in the dirt where he belongs is the Alpha Dog, Alec White.”
“What was stopping him from teaming up with those hunters who wanted to take down Alec?” I asked, trying to put together some sort of mental imagery around this new and disturbing news.
I guess life at Forest Lake wasn’t as rosy as I thought.
“Because, Reaper is an alligator shifter, and hunters hate shifters in all shapes and forms. For once, the Alpha dog and the cartel were singing from the same hymn sheet. The Alpha needed weapons and where do you suppose he obtained them from?” Axel tilted his head as he delivered the question as if to say, ‘it’s not exactly rocket science.’ “The Blood Moon Bears rode into town with an arsenal of weapons, but they came gift-wrapped with a big fat bow on top, courtesy of The Reaper Cartel. Alec may be a genius but even he should’ve figured that Reaper will come to collect someday. I dread to think what it’ll cost him.”
I took a moment to think about that. “If I were a crime lord, forced to live a covert life in a state where human rules don’t actually apply, then I would want to conduct business out in the open.”
Axel’s lips twitched up in a half smirk. “That’s what we all anticipate. But on the flip-side, if he promises to comply with how things are done around those parts, then he stands a good chance of putting a case in front of the council.”
I shook my head. “But a guy like that can’t be trusted,” I voiced, vehemently.
Axel agreed wholeheartedly with me. “No, love, he can’t. Which is why you have to get your shit together pronto and get your cute, intelligent ass on that seat in the council chambers.”
I swallowed hard, feeling the sensation of bile creeping up my throat. My parents were right. It was about time I started to pull my weight, grow up, and take some responsibility.
Telling Riley about the underbelly of Forest Lake wasn’t the smartest idea I’d ever had. But now that she would be returning home without me, I figured it would serve her better to have a heads up. I didn’t want her to think that she could go about town, prancing around in Prada and not draw some unwanted attention to herself. The last thing I needed was for The Reaper Cartel to learn that Carlton Griffith’s only daughter was living all alone, out in a remote ranger’s cabin in the woods. Rebecca owed me for what she did, but I didn’t want her risking her life. They would be heading back to the Ridge by private jet, courtesy of the fox king.
Before we knew it, the time had come to part ways.
“Time to go, babe.” I nudged my wife, gently.
Her parents would be joining us in a couple of weeks, after they finish tying up loose ends here. They mentioned something about a quick stop via a courthouse, reinstating those nuptials that only mattered under human law.
“Behave yourself, Axel,” Riley warned pointing her finger at me. Her gaze bounced between Beast and me as if she couldn’t decide who was worst.
“Scout’s honor,” I joked, holding my fingers up in a salute.
Beast snorted, shaking his head. Figured he would be better off staying mute through experience. Gianna, his wife, and mate had trained him well. She was the reason that this Beast of a bear shifter was now a reformed character. Well, semi-reformed. Fatherhood looked good on him and gave him a purpose in life. I was surprised that Gia let him off the leash so that he could come on this road trip with me but even she could see that a guy like him needed a break every once in a while.
“Like you were ever a boy scout,” Riley scoffed with her signature eye-roll.
Little did she know, I was. Well, I was a part of the shifter variety. Those of us who wanted to train as Rangers were sent up into the mountains and learned to live off the land. We had to familiarize ourselves with our territory, get to know it inside out. That way, any foreign scents were picked up in a heartbeat, keeping the danger away from town.
“Play nice,” I returned, pointing my finger at Riley and then at Rebecca. “I don’t want to have to rush back because you girls have gouged each other’s eyes out.”
Riley crossed her arms in front of her tits as if she resented that comment. Becca grimaced as if feigning innocence that she was even capable of committing such an atrocity. They were so alike, it was freaky.
“Are you ready?” Beast spoke in a voice that sounded like thunder rumbling across the sky. The kind of tone that sent all the ladies into a hormonal flurry.
I flashed my eyes to my wife, noticing how her gaze was trained solely upon me. Once again, I thanked my lucky stars for the mate bond...and the fact that my comrade was a happily mated male.
“Are you kidding?” I turned to him with a shit-eating grin. “This is like home from home for a guy like me.”
“Well, don’t get too comfortable,” Riley commented, uncrossing her arms so that she could greet me in a farewell embrace. “Or else you’ll come home to find the cabin knocked down and a condo in its place.”
That wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I knew it was safe to say that I would come back to find that Riley had stamped her mark on it somehow. My humble abode wasn’t exactly the Four Seasons. So if she felt the need to drag it by the balls into the twenty-first century, then she could be my guest. Quite literally. Interior design wasn’t exactly my strong point. It couldn’t hurt to add a few feminine touches here and there.
“Try to relax and listen to what Rebecca tells you,” I advised, enjoying one last squeeze of her ass as we hugged.
Riley giggled, pulling back so that she could give me a kiss.
Beast cleared his throat and I got the hint that he was itching to get a move on.
“Bye, babe, have fun!” Riley chimed, putting on a brave face.
I slung the suitcase full of clothing that Carlton had put together for me (probably by one of his entourage) and climbed into the army-style truck alongside Beast.
Both doors made a loud crack as they were pulled shut. “Was surprised to get a call from you so soon?” Beast rumbled in his gravel rough voice.
“I knew you missed me, honey,” I joked, earning an amused chuckle from him.
He fired up the engine which roared like a jungle cat and I watched Riley’s reflection in the side mirror get smaller and smaller as we took off down the drive.
“Mated life looks good on you,” Beast remarked.
He was never one for small talk, so that stirred a whole load of curiosity right there.
“Thanks,” I responded, unsure what to make of that.
“I’m glad you saw some sense and agreed to fight for the cause,” he drawled, throwing the USC out into the conversation just as I anticipated he would.
And I was expecting that...just not within five seconds of pulling out of Riley’s street.
“Well, I figured trouble has a habit of finding me whether I go looking for it or not so what the hell? Why not face it head-on instead?” I reasoned, staring out through the windshield.
“The Alpha Dog ain’t blind. He knows what’s coming,” Beast mentioned as if he knew something I didn’t.
But then, I had been left out of the loop just lately and that was mostly my fault. It wasn’t exactly compulsory for me to live like a hermit recluse, licking my wounds in that dingy wooden hut, all on my lonesome. I chose to stay away from all the whispering and scaremongering. Ignorance was bliss after all.
“But he has been sidelined and that doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest of us,” Beast added.
“He’s still going ahead with that?” I asked, pausing to blow a forced breath through puckered lips. “That could take years! Even centuries.”
Beast made a grunting sound in the back of his throat which suggested that he agreed.
The Alpha was a man of science, an Einstein of his time. He had five long centuries to train that superb brain of his, absorbing so much knowledge that even someone as brilliant as Stephen Hawkins could’ve learned a thing or two. The Alpha had succeeded in inventing a serum that was potent enough to reduce a pureblood vampire into dust. After the battle for Stonevale, he now had a legion of turned vamps wanting him to come up with a remedy that would cure them of their affliction. Sure, he could’ve sent them on their merry way or turned them into a pile of smoldering ash. Only, they have him by the balls. If his mother and sister hadn’t been turned then the Alpha Dog might have declined the challenge. Blood is, after all, thicker than water. Not even a man as powerful as Alec White could live with the guilt of turning his back on family.
“And that means that he’s going to be spending a great deal of time away from Forest Lake,” I deduced, figuring as much. “Shit!” I exhaled a stunned breath as I collapsed back in my seat.
“Shit indeed,” Beast reinforced.
Rebecca King and I stood side-by-side in awkward silence, watching the truck crawl away down the drive.
Both of us waving our goodbyes with a forced smile plastered across our faces. The minute the truck veered out of sight, I rounded on her.
"Look, I'm a straightforward, level-headed person. Whatever you want to say to me, just come out and say it." I held my palms out at the side of me.
She smashed her lips together, placing her hands on her hips. "Fine," she muttered, then dragged in a lungful of air. "I'll start by saying that I'm sorry," she said while maintaining direct eye contact.
That made me soften my approach. "Thank you," I accepted, gracefully.
I could tell by the way she carried herself that she was a proud person. An apology like that must've tasted like acid on her tongue. Still, she apologized none the less, and if I slapped away the olive branch, then that would make her the bigger person and me a spiteful bitch.
We both held our stare for a moment too long. Sensing the uneasiness between us, Rebecca began to talk about the treatment she was proposing.
"I know this seems a little rich coming from me but I really need to trust me," she said, cringing at the end of her sentence. "I want you to know that I take my job seriously and my level of commitment will be none other than impeccable. As of now, you're my patient, my responsibility. When I cure your mental blockage..." She described it as if it was like some sort of clogged drain or something like that. "...it'll allow your natural instinct to come through."
I imagined her to pull out a sink plunger and clamp it down over my mouth, sucking out all of the shit that festered away down there. I was curious to experience how it felt to shift, but then again, I was also apprehensive. I really did eat a mouse that night. A little furry mouse that I put in my mouth, chewed, then swallowed.
"Riley, it sounds a little daunting at first." She assumed it was the therapy that bothered me.
I wrinkled my nose. "Nah, I'm good." I shrugged it off as no big deal.
"But don't think it's all going to be mind grueling psychology," she promised, smiling brightly. "The point to all of this is to make you feel comfortable in your fox form. Before you know it, you'll be racing through the forest, hunting down your supper."
I forced a smile as if I'd been threatened to do it at gunpoint. As she turned away with a spring in her step, my cheeks dropped back in situ. There were pros and cons of being able to shift. And right now, Rebecca fancied herself as Florence fucking Nightingale, expecting me to shift my ass onto Dad's plane so that she can fix me. Something feral gave a ferocious growl from within and I wondered whether I had completely lost the plot.
Grudgingly, I followed her onto the aircraft. It was a pity Gabe wasn't able to accompany me back to Forest Lake to prevent me from committing a felony. If Rebecca King thought for one second that I was going to chow down forest creatures during our time together, then she was dead wrong.
I checked my phone for the umpteenth time in the last couple of hours. This time Axel had sent me a text. As I opened it, I saw that it was a goofy selfie in a service station burger bar. My stomach growled in protest, wishing that I ate more than just a Caesar salad for dinner. I regretted not packing any snacks for the journey, searching through my purse to see if I could find stick of gum or a mint imperial or something. No such luck. At that moment, I would've devoured anything.
"Is that your stomach?" Rebecca inquired, chuckling at the gurgling sound coming from within me.
I inwardly cursed, calling her a series of names that would make even Axel's jaw drop with shock. Then she pulled out a Caramac bar and snapped it in half for us to share, and I swear, I almost orgasmed at the sight of it.
"Oh my God, you're a lifesaver," I expressed, cradling the toffee flavored calorie stick with reverence.
Any ill will I harbored for the curvy bear shifter, vanished in an instant. She was now the Messiah of all things tasty and wholesome. That is until my hunger strikes again.
"I'm glad we have this opportunity to become friends," she said, making me feel guilty as sin. "Maybe when I find my mate, he and Axel can become friends too. Then our kids can grow up together and we can all laugh about this someday." She sounded genuinely hopeful about that.
Come on, Riley, you can do it!
"Yeah, I hope so too," I replied, thinking that it might not be as far fetched as it seemed.
You see...the bigger person! Who would've ever thought it possible?