It had taken a little over two weeks for Axel to make a full recovery. During that time, he had several fevers as his body fought to burn away every last fragment of silver. He was granted another two months sick leave before enlisting into the united shifter military, alongside his pal, Beast.
In the meantime, I began my role as a council official. The USC consisted of eighteen members: my father, Alec White, and his wife, Leah, Raul Martinez, and his wife, Danielle from the cat shifter community, and twelve elderly bear shifters.
I glance up at the office clock on the wall, conscious that it was almost lunchtime. My stomach gives a growl in protest, desperate for nourishment. Since shifting, my body needed to consume a ridiculous amount of calories to sustain me. I almost feel guilty about eating whatever I wanted without putting on an ounce of weight. I say: almost. I don't feel an ounce of remorse or regret.
The dull thudding of Doc Martin boots stomp across the hall, making me breathe a sigh of relief. My lunch date has arrived.
In the next moment, there was a brisk, confident knock on the door. The type of knock that belongs to a bailiff who turns up at your property with every intention of removing your stuff.
"Leah, you know you can walk right in." I chuckle.
The wolf Luna opens the door and peers around the dark wood, making sure that the coast is clear.
"Oh, I thought you might have company. I can smell...uh...I can smell Axel," she stammers.
My face flushes red hot with embarrassment.
Fuck! I keep forgetting they can smell stuff.
Axel had been here earlier. He came to bring me the bagel that I accidentally left on the kitchen countertop, this morning. However, he ate it as he sat in my chair, and I ate him for breakfast, instead.
I know... I'm such a filthy bitch.
I click my tongue. "Darn it, I keep forgetting that my dad's office is just three doors down, not to mention my bodyguard is stationed right outside."
Leah chuckles. "Well, at least it's a great source of protein, but sucking dick isn't going to get you pregnant, just so you know."
"It's a good job it can't," I say, with a humored roll of my eyes. "Just because we can have kids, doesn't mean we're in any rush to have one. Axel and I talked about this and we've decided that we want to wait at least a year before we start trying for a baby." I glance at her flat stomach, astounded that she had only given birth a matter of weeks ago.
The only reason that she's here today and not enjoying maternity leave, is because we have an important council meeting this afternoon.
"How is the little one doing?" I ask about her lycan pup that Axel and I were chosen to be godparents to.
"Robert is a live wire, just like his dad," she replies, with a sigh. "And he's constantly hungry. I think that I've expressed enough milk to last him until tonight. I feel like a milked cow."
"Speaking of hunger..." I rub my abdomen, gingerly. "I'm absolutely famished."
"I feel you, girl. I'm famished too," she agrees. "Jace is babysitting to give me a little time to myself. Not that sitting in the stuffy council chambers is much of a break, but at least I get to hang out with you and grab lunch."
Leah and I became friends after we hit it off in the jailhouse. I always love telling people that when they ask how we met. Despite our different upbringings, we share a lot in common. Neither of us knew we were shifters. We found out through tragic circumstances. And we were both descendants of the founding fathers of Forest Lake, which made us shifter royalty.
The two of us chat casually as we stroll through the confederate building. I barely even notice our bodyguards trailing behind us like The Men In Black. Leah told me how she was able to continue her studies as well as set up her own law firm. It was situated along the same chaotic street as the USC and all the other important buildings here in Hawcroft. We walked the short distance to Main Street, where Leah had made us a reservation at a fancy little bistro called 'The Beehive'. I smelled honey and spices the second I stepped inside. A display of mead bottles lined the walls, green vines that had pretty colored flowers draped from the dark beams that ran the full length of the ceiling and framed the bar. We were seated out of the view of prying eyes, in our own private booth that consisted of a curved trellis. It meant that we had a clear view of the restaurant but it provided us with ample cover.
"How are you feeling about the meeting this afternoon?" Leah asked as we glanced at the menus.
I swallowed thickly, feeling my stomach flip with anxiety. It was the last Friday of the month. That was when the council would open the chambers to the public and invite them to partake in an open debate. Anyone who had submitted a topic for discussion, however big or small, like an application to obtain planning permission, a request to apply for community funding, as well as make a suggestion for us to amend our legislation or constitution, could do so at the meeting. Nothing was definitive. It just meant that it would be considered, discussed amongst ourselves, and then we would decide by voting. If it came down to one vote against a majority, then that one vote would be overruled. But if two members voted in favor of an issue, the council had to consider it. My dad warned me that it seldom happens because the council tended to agree on pretty much everything.
"Nervous," I admit. "I feel like everybody is expecting me to screw up."
"Everybody is expecting you to make changes," she corrects. "It's your first resident meeting. You're bound to be nervous. I was when it was my first time," Leah reassures. "Things were far worse back then. Right after my town was destroyed."
The waitress saunters over to take our order, so our conversation cuts off dead until she leaves. Minutes pass before she returns with our drinks, then we sip our iced teas while we wait for our food.
"Do you have any words of wisdom for me?" I ask, feeling nerves start to tighten my stomach.
"Trust your gut instincts," she answers back, making direct eye-contact.
I don't break her gaze, even though I probably should. Leah White has the power to make a person do whatever she wills them to do, but I trust her enough as my friend not to abuse her gift. As she leans forward to speak, I can see nothing but fierce integrity staring back at me.
"Don't fall under the whip. Voice your own opinions and do what you think is right," she advises me. "We can't begin to move forward if we're too afraid of change."
My brows fall into a frown as I consider that.
"Off the record, what do you think needs to change?" I ask, studying her expression as she ponders that.
"Honestly?" She bounces her gaze around the bistro, probably to check if there were any wolf shifters sitting within earshot, "I think there's a gap in our security. It doesn't matter how well prepared we are, Hunters have a habit of finding their way through. Then there's all the drug trafficking, arms smuggling, extortion, thefts, and financial crime. Money launderers also co-mingle illegal money with revenue made from businesses in order to further mask their illicit funds. There's no way we can keep track of all of that and some of the most vulnerable in our society are being exploited."
Nothing she told me caused me to bat an eyelid, such is the way of the world.
"Literally everywhere has these exact same problems. What makes you convinced we can keep it all in check here in Forest Lake?" I put my point across.
Leah flashes me a fragile smile. "I think you know the answer to that, Riley."
Did I? Maybe I do but I'm still unsure.
"Look," Leah says, exhaling a sigh. "You and I both know we're walking around with targets on our heads. You've already had one assassination attempt which almost cost you your mate." She places her purse on the tabletop as she rummages inside and produces a crumpled letter. She holds it out for me to take. "Here, read that. This arrived three days ago."
I took the letter and unfolded it to read. The sickening message was enough to turn my blood cold.
"Fucking hell, who does this?" I blurt, horrified.
Leah's tongue darts out as she moistens her lips. "Vampires from Italy." Our eyes meet across the table and mine flare wide. "Yeah, exactly," she says.
"They're threatening to kidnap your newborn son and..." I can't even repeat the death threat they made against Leah. The things they intend to do to her was horrific.
"That's why we need the devil guarding our doorstep," Leah comments. "Sometimes you need a necessary evil to keep all the nasties in line."
"You know what?" I swallow away the dryness in my mouth. "I like how you're thinking. Where I come from, there are plenty of reptiles who dominate the food chain, metaphorically speaking."
We return back to the USC building as the residents are arriving in droves. Leah and I are ushered in through a side door which leads straight down to the council chambers. This place reminds me of a Roman amphitheater, like any moment, a gladiator would appear and end up getting mauled by a hungry lion.
I take a seat next to my father and look out at the sea of faces who are all staring back at us. The twelve bear shifter elders sit alongside one another at the far side of the row. Alpha Alec is sitting in the president's chair in between Leah and Beast. The Hispanic cat shifters, Raul and Danielle sit beside Dad. Everyone is talking amongst themselves while the last of the straddlers pile through the double doors. I spy Axel standing at the back of the room. He's wearing his full-dress maroon red uniform and the shoes he spent last night spit-shining. I know he can't wave while he's on-duty so I press two fingers to my lips then run them along my mating mark. It's the same gesture as blowing a kiss to your mate.
Alec slams his gavel onto the desk, commanding silence throughout the chambers. The first fifteen minutes were dedicated to opening the meeting, reminding all in attendance about the legalities. Then he starts going through the agenda, paragraph by paragraph, discussing each motion until we reach the one that I'm dreading. My eyes land on the elephant in the room—I mean the alligator. The reaper.
It was me who submitted the request for a fair hearing, despite him not having asked since the night at the bar. Not once since he had saved our lives did he approach, badger, email, or contact me in any way. I just figured all good deeds shouldn't go undone.
Alec clears his throat, clearly uncomfortable about what he has to announce next.
"Agenda number sixteen: The exoneration of Mr. Victor Landry which will permit him to exercise the right to claim his alpha status. I implore the honorable members of the council to approach this with caution. Think about what this could mean and the drastic impact this will have on our community."
After way too much apprehensive grumbling from the bear shifter clan, my father, and the Alpha and Luna of the cat shifter community, I figure it would be dismissed point-blank.
"All those in favor of exonerating Mr. Landry, please state whether you vote for or against," Alec commands.
The chambers fall into silence as everyone waits to see how this will unfold. Victor stands with his hands clasped casually behind his back. He's dressed smartly in a crisp white shirt, black suit trousers, and dress shoes. His hair is gelled back into a sophisticated style. He bounces his gaze around the room, then locks eyes with Leah White as he awaits the outcome of the vote.
Just as I thought, all twelve bear shifter elders vote against the proposal, with the last one hissing, "No way in Hell."
"Against," Raul answers, then looks to his wife. "Against," she votes the same way as her husband.
"I vote against the proposal," Alec responds, vehemently.
"I vote for the proposal," Leah voices, amidst loud groans from the bears.
Our earlier conversation suddenly all makes sense, and I get the impression that she has tried to raise this subject before but had no doubt been overruled.
"Against," Dad's words sound final.
Then all eyes land on me. The atmosphere in the room grows tense as if all the air has been sucked away and replaced with something noxious.
For a fleeting moment, I flick my gaze between the man that I love and the man that I think deserves the benefit of the doubt. From what I can fathom, Forest Lake isn't exactly short of heroes. How many would have to give their lives to protect this wounded state from another threat, so soon after the last? In the words of Tina Turner and her remarkable pipes, "We don't need another hero." Maybe what we really need is the opposite—an anti-hero. The right kind of wrong that will stand guard while we sleep and scare away the boogeyman. I know one thing: I would rather be on-side with the reaper than have him as an adversary. I've seen him in action and I know what he can do.
Dad's stare was practically burning holes in the side of my face as I took an intake of breath and voted, "I vote in favor of exonerating Mr. Victor Landry."
Victor's jaw hangs agape as he realizes what I just did. I notice Axel blanch, breathing heavily as the sound of raucous voices fills the room. It's enough to drown out the loud hammering from Alec's gavel.
That's when Beast stands up and yells, "QUIET!"
The chattering dies down and fades into silence. Beast resumes his seat and I see Alec slump back in his seat, clutching his forehead.
"What the devil have you done?" My father hisses, his face is ashen.
I don't think that I've ever seen him this angry. However, Victor is bouncing on heels as he smirks like a fucker. I hope that I've done the right thing because now the council has to deliberate it.
"The council is taking a thirty-minute recession." Alec finally announces before slamming down the gavel.
Leah holds back as each council member gets up from their seats and storms into a room at the back of the chamber.
"Get ready for the nuclear detonator to blow," she warns.
We were the last to enter the room, then one of the bear elders closes the door behind us.
"What the fuck was that all about?" Alec looks between me and Leah, accusingly.
Leah doesn't appear the slightest bit intimidated as she glares defiantly at her husband. "Don't be such a stubborn asshole!" She jabs her finger at his chest. "Victor pulled through for us once before. You know he swore an oath of loyalty to me and I trust him with my life. I trust him with our son's life. You know you stand a better chance of finding the cure for vampire venom with him by your side."
Alec drags a hand through his hair, making it look wild and unruly. "But he's a criminal, Amore. We cannot justify the immoral activity he conducts in the underground."
I can see some of the others attempt to interject but the wolf Luna doesn't give them a chance. "So lay down some ground rules," she suggests, flinging her hands in the air. "Come to a compromise. Maybe organized crime is better than it being disorganized."
"No prizes for guessing who put that idea into your head," he argues, rolling his eyes, dramatically.
Leah folds her arms across her chest and huffs through her nose.
"Hey," I cringe as I cut in. "I don't want to speak out of turn here, but I think I owe you an explanation of why I voted the way I did." I can't bring myself to look in my father's eyes at this point, not wanting to see the disappointment residing within them.
"Victor just wants someplace to call home. I think he has the potential to contribute, but in an unorthodox way." I see that I've grabbed everyone's attention, even if I was being scowled at with scrutiny.
The cat shifter couple doesn't appear too pleased with how this is all playing out, but they don't give rise to the debate. The hostility is coming from the bear elders who begin to growl amongst themselves about how incompetent we all are.
"So, you're suggesting we allow him to conduct business as usual? You do realize the man is a murderer?" My father berated.
"Gangsters run most of the casinos in the human world, Dad. Don't think that you can create a perfect state when we don't live in a perfect universe," I finish with a shrug.
"Exactly," Leah reinforces. "The world we live in is far from perfect. I remember only too well. What's it going to take to make you swallow your pride? I don't want it to have to cost us our son."
"Amore," Alec sighs, remorsefully.
Leah raises a palm. "Just stop. I'm getting death threats in the mail. Victor would lay down his life for me and you know it."
"What would you have me do?" Alec murmurs. "I'm going to Italy and I will eliminate every last one of those blood-sucking bastards myself.
As Leah wipes the tears from her eyes, an idea presents itself to me.
"Why not take the reaper with you? No one will be expecting it," I say, making Alec consider my point. "He must know stealthy ways of sneaking around undetected."
"She's right," Beast rasps as he leans casually against the closed door. "As much as I hate that fucker, he's the best chance we've got."
Alec seems to mull over the colonel's words then turns to his wife, lifting her chin to face him. They communicate something privately and I see the faintest smile reach Leah's eyes.
My vote it either going to be beneficial or a contributing factor for Forest Lake's demise. That's what my dad is thinking, but I wouldn't be the daughter he raised me to be if I didn't stand up for what I believe in.
As soon as the meeting concludes, I snatch my purse from beneath my seat and power walk from the building. My head feels like it's going to explode with pressure and I need air.
"Babe?" Axel says as he rushes to greet me.
"Please don't start," I begin, not wanting another lecture.
He lifts me by the hips and proceeds to spin me around in circles. "You were fantastic up there!"
I grimace as he places me down and the view of the street takes a few seconds longer to catch up with what just happened.
"Huh? Uh?" I groan, dizzy and disoriented.
Axel throws his arm across my shoulder while we walk to the parking lot.
"That was some risky shit, babe," he remarks. "But you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."
I shoot him a side-glance. "Gee, thanks for the analogy. It's the confidence boost I was looking for," I respond with sarcasm.
"What I mean is, you can't change things up without being prepared to take some risks. I'm proud of you, darlin'." His voice dropped to a husky rasp.
"Proud, huh?" Our lips meet as we both lean in for a kiss.
He pulls back with a sexy grin. "What do you say about fiery tacos for dinner and a fuck in the woods for dessert?"
I laugh out loud. "What the hell?"
Who would've thought that this guy was a clueless virgin a few months ago? Not me, that's for sure. The way his hips swagger as he walks, all the sex appeal, and the confidence he oozes as he smiles... Axel Thorne is everything I've never dreamed about because I never knew he existed. But ever since that night I almost mowed him down in the road... I guess you could say the asshole grew on me. Now he's stuck with me forever.
~The next chapter will be the epilogue.