The silence in the car lingered as the trees beyond the car window had grown more numerous since their journey started. Lara was no longer trying to rope her into further conversation but it was a small solace considering the woman’s words still tormented her. The denser the trees outside became, the more dense the dread in the pit of her stomach became as it tensed and swelled within her.
Though there were questions that Cora would have liked answered, knowing what and how much to ask was the point of contention. There were times Lara looked a little unhinged, and Cora wasn’t sure she could completely show her hand.
Not for the first time, Cora wondered how Lara might react if she discovered that her parents were wolf-shifters. What was even worse was that her parents were named Darcy and Alton. The probability that there were two such wolf-shifter couples with those exact same names seemed fairly slim. The thought hammered away in her head and settled heavily in her gut.
The nagging thought that her mother, the only one in her childhood that stuck up for her against Anton, could be a murderer made her heart ache. The thought itself was dizzying, her head spinning at the revelation and the need to have answers. It was not too hard to figure out that Lara could not be trusted, but there were few in her life she actually did trust. However, there were things in her life that just did not add up.
Cora’s childhood had been restrictive in so many ways. If indeed her mother had killed someone, it might possibly explain living on the fringes of society all her life. But then, how did Anton manage to free her?
Darcy had been her light in the dark for so long that it seemed so ill-conceived to believe the scandalous nature of it. How could her mother have hated someone so much that she could take a life? The same woman that would comfort Cora when Anton was a little too rough with her. The woman that had put herself between her and an angry Anton when he was a little too angry with her. The one who stayed behind with her when the moon called to all shifters to run free within its bountiful light, causing pain and anguish to those that tried to resist...all because she had been forbidden to call forward her lion.
Her own mother had suffered nearly as much as Cora herself had at the expense of the restrictions and punishments that had been doled out over the years. When she rocked Cora in a corner of her room as she screamed and cried during those overwhelming lunar moments, restraining a beast nearly too strong for a child her age, Darcy had suffered caging her own beast. The strength that she had shown in her own torment as she comforted Cora was immense, but the affection during those times was momentous.
There were not many in this community that Cora knew by name, intentionally, she supposed. She had been kept hidden away, excluded from public events until the night of the engagement.
The night of the engagement! Her skin warmed at the thoughts, her stomach quivered, and her hand smoothed its way across her abdomen. The night Cora had ruined Lara’s engagement party. An engagement that Lara had proclaimed still existed, even if Brock seemed less inclined to believe so. But, then there was the treaty. Her head whirled as she fought to make sense of everything. It was like being handed an explosive device and being unsure of when it was going to go off.
Cora caught sight of the woman from the corner of her eye and frowned. The woman’s face was shadowed by emotion, none of it worth naming. She felt certain that most of those emotions that were written as plain as day on her face were directed towards her. No, this woman was the explosive device that was only moments from going off. The sensation of it crept over her entire being.
How could she allow this woman near her parents, especially her mother?
“I can’t go home,” the realization and the words fell at the same moment. The words were spoken so softly that most people would not have heard them, but Lara would have. Any shifter would have heard them as clear as crystal.
As if stirring her from her own thoughts, Lara responded. “I’m sorry?”
Cora cast a wary glance at her before turning to look out the passenger window once more. Trees whizzed by, the familiarity of their location setting in. Home would not be much further.
Cora cast a sly glance to Lara’s face, noting the self-satisfied smile. She had no doubt Lara heard her but seemed to relish the idea of her asking once more. No, Cora felt certain it wasn’t that Lara wanted her to ask once more, she wanted Cora to beg.
Taking a deep breath, she was determined to add a little more firmness in her words. “I can’t go home.” She raised her voice slightly more than before, not quite meeting the determination of her intent.
Cora caught Lara’s reflection in the glass, not mistaking the lift of her lips. She let one of her cool hands press against Cora’s forearm before patting it gently. “Oh, sugar. Of course.” She pulled her hand back and placed it once again on the steering wheel. “So, where would you like me to take you?”
The question hit her like a ton of bricks. Where could she go? The one thing she knew was that she couldn’t bring this woman around her parents, her disdain of wolf-shifters all too apparent. However, it was her intimate knowledge of them that worried her the most.
Maybe she could go back to the castle, back to Brock. Would he have noticed she was missing by now? Internally, she groaned. The whole reason she left was to clear her head. When she was near him, she couldn’t think clearly. His scent, his voice, those eyes, the way he said her name...each of them contributed to her mind being a vast wasteland that was bereft of thought. And yet...
That beast of hers was rubbing up against her ribcage in affirmation of her choice in the matter, but the whole ordeal was her lioness’ doing. The internal purr from her thrummed through Cora’s body, persisting on resounding her pleasure through the small area in the car. With an enormous amount of effort, she stifled the vibrations of pleasure her lioness emitted.
Her nerves caused her stomach to roil, but she knew what she had to do. “I-I’m sorry I made you come out all this way, but maybe I need to go back.” She winced, her words sounding more uncertain than not.
The woman beside her tensed as her fingers gripped the steering wheel even tighter. She replied in an even tone that only made her sound more irate beneath the surface. “Did you not hear what I said about how your life would be as Brock’s mate? Are you that stupid? Do you not want your freedom?” Her acerbic words lashed out, even as Lara fought to keep a calm exterior. It was there in her eyes, though. Cora saw the wild look, a look of a woman used to getting her way and would fight to make sure she always did.
Cora cowered away from the woman in the driver’s seat, pressing herself more firmly against the passenger door. Her lioness had quite the adverse reaction, incensed and snarling at the suggestion that her mate would be anything less than honorable and cavalier. There was no doubt that she would defend her mate with her life, along with the life of her cub.
Lara pressed her lips thin, the flesh turning white from the sheer amount of force. “Oh, wouldn’t he? Look what he did to me? Cast me aside like yesterday’s newspaper. And what do you think he will do to you when you are no longer today’s news?”
The venom in her words continued to strike at Cora harder than any snake, their potency hitting her hard in the chest. The lioness within her was roaring with displeasure at the light that Lara was casting him in. Cora only wished she had as much faith in him as her lioness.
What had Anton said about the royal princess? The dalliances of kings were only surpassed by that of their daughters. He had been bitter when he said such a remark in front of her, and Darcy had quickly removed her from the room before Anton could continue with his tirade.
It was certainly a puzzle in her own mind why anyone, especially a princess, would allow someone to disabuse her in such a way. “But, you’re a princess,” Cora offered quietly. Weren’t princesses supposed to be proud, strong, confident, composed, and commanding? She had to admit that Lara carried some of those traits, but they most certainly were not the best of them.
In the reflection of her window, she could see the woman sneer. The reflection was certainly more honest than the woman herself.
“Of course, I am a princess,” Lara snapped. The woman’s face went taut as she took a deep breath, relaxing her features before she continued. “Being a princess doesn’t prevent us from having to fight for everything we want, or deserve. In fact, unless we want to be used as pawns in their diplomacies, we need to stand up for ourselves and make things happen...the way we want them to happen! They frown on women leading without a strong man by their side, believing we are weak and inferior. When, in fact, we are strong and able to manipulate, control, and command a situation to our heart's desire. They haven’t a clue what we are capable of!”
The woman kept her eyes focused on the road as she sheltered her emotions behind a blank expression, her choice of words being the only clue as to her true torment. Cora blinked a few times, curiosity and trepidation at war with one another.
Curiosity won. “But, the treaty...you were going to marry…”
Heat rose into her face as she thought about what she was about to say. She winced as she brought a reminder of what had occurred, half wondering if it was a good thing or not. If this woman was so against being a pawn in diplomacy, maybe she didn’t want to marry Brock after all. The derision she held with regards to him would suggest she may not have been all too keen.
Lara chuckled before sighing loudly, the exaggeration of it making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. “My dear, sweet Cora. Have you not seen Brock in action?” She lifted a carefully manicured brow, glancing at Cora from the corner of her eye. “Oh, I don’t mean that action,” she offered condescendingly, “No, that man has the strength and power of a hundred wolves! He is a real king, not some mere pup. He is about to unite two kingdoms, making us the strongest prides to be feared, and just who do you think that those two prides will bow down to? Do you think for one minute that they will bow to my father?” The laugh she forced out made Cora tense. “Not bloody likely! And I didn’t come this far to lose my power just yet. By Brock’s side, I will be the second strongest being on this continent. That was my choice...and I made it happen!”
The contempt she had for wolves once again smacked against Cora. The pride lands that they lived on had a multitude of shifters on them and not purely lion shifters. There had been rumors that these pride lands had been accommodating more and more shifter families from other pride lands due to discriminatory actions and prejudices. Cora found it unpalatable.
The woman’s last words, I made it happen, only sharpened the edge that Cora sat on. Her intolerance for other shifters grated over her, salt causing the wound to sting. Either way, she knew it had been a mistake to get in the car with this woman. All she had been concerned with was getting home and giving herself a chance to think. Never had she realized she was bringing an enemy to their door. If the woman despised wolf-shifters that much, her parents would not be warmly received.
“Can we just go back, please?”
Lara’s grip on the wheel tightened once more. “Go back to him? Certainly, there has to be somewhere else we can take you,” she offered.
The woman was resistant to going back, causing the bells to spring to life in her head. Though Cora had made the decision, this woman was not heeding her words. The countryside passed by the window at an alarming rate, her home only a few more miles ahead. If she did not get her to change directions soon, they would be rolling up on her parents’ home...her home.
Her only response to anything she said was to belittle her parents and her mate. Mate...the one person that she was not even supposed to have.
“Brock might be-”
Lara cut her off, her face no longer trying to conceal her rage. “Anton was right!” She slammed her palms against the steering wheel, causing Cora to clutch at the handle. This woman was crazy and her attention to the road was becoming more haphazard with every second that passed. “He told me that bringing you to the ball was a mistake. But, no…I thought it would be funny to watch the beautiful Arwen sold into slavery with a wretched wolf.” Her crazed laughter filled the car before she had a chance to continue. “God, but that man was vile. I worked so hard to find the perfect mate for our precious little princess, and your lioness had to go and blow the whole deal!” Again, she slammed her palms into the steering wheel, her whole body thrusting forward with every move.
“But, I’m not-” Cora swallowed hard as the woman let out a wail of frustration.
The woman glanced at her and sneered. “No, you are nothing like our little Arwen. You are only a shell of what you once were. I made sure Anton brought you to your knees and turned you into the sniveling creature you are now!” Lara was now swerving on the road, her anger making her whole body shake.
Cora’s head was spinning at the revelation, struggling to focus on the meaning of what was confessed. White knuckles gripped the handle as she fought for something to say that would calm the woman.
“If you pull over, I can walk.” Cora tried to smile at the woman, though it would have come out strained and nervous. Her own fear grew worse as the car accelerated, trees whistling by at a much faster rate. The determination of Lara’s face caused Cora’s own to pale. What she was planning did not bode well for her.
Lara laughed without any mirth at the request. “Over my dead body! I can’t have you running back to dear old Brock and telling him who you really are. You would ruin everything I have worked so hard for!”
A sharp hairpin curve in the road appeared just ahead and Lara paid no heed to the speed limit signs that urged drivers to slow their pace. The car hummed over the pavement while Cora looked out the passenger window to see the ground sloping sharply away from the road. Panic seized her as she tried to think of her options, nearly consuming her. Her lioness growled at her, trying to gain her attention...trying to keep her calm. But Cora had never experienced this extent of fear, not even with Anton.
The only thought that thundered through her head was that she needed to escape. This woman was going to kill her, one way or another. Even if they did manage to survive the curve, she would never allow Cora to live. She’d made that perfectly clear.
Grabbing the door handle, she wrenched it open. The door flew open and scraped loudly against the protective railing on the side of the road. In her haste to escape, she forgot the one thing that would prevent her from leaving: her seatbelt.
Lara’s hand yanked the shoulder strap of her seatbelt hard, making Cora gasp from the pain it inflicted. “How fortunate that you thought you needed to wear your seatbelt!”
Sparks were flying into the car from the opened door, the metal getting warmer the longer it rubbed against the railing. When Cora tried to reach a hand around to click the button on the contraption that held her hostage, Lara snarled. “Think again!”
The hand that gripped the shoulder strap brought the nylon support around her head before pulling it up sharply. As it was, the device nearly strangled her small frame. Now, it was actually doing just that.
Gasping for air, Cora flailed her arms in front of her, reaching out for anything that might help her out of her predicament. When her hand hit the steering wheel, a plan surfaced. They were just before the curve and the sharp drop that followed. It was now or never. It was not ideal, but anything was better than careening off the cliff ahead.
Jerking the wheel towards her, the opened door slammed closed at an alarming rate. The damage it sustained would not allow it to properly close shut and she pulled the wheel as hard as she could once more, hoping to break through the metal railing.
Metal on metal pierced the air around them as Lara shrieked, the car breaching the barrier and plowing down the steep hillside. The branches of the trees that were scattered down the hillside smacked into the careening car, all sense of direction lost as the car continued to plummet down the precariously sloped hillside.
“You bitch!” The woman shrieked beside her as she tightened her grip on both the steering column and the seatbelt. She unsuccessfully tried to control the car’s movements with one hand while Cora’s face turned an unnatural color, her head throbbing as the blood begged to be set free to flow once more.
Using both her tiny hands, she clutched the wheel more forcefully. Giving it another hard tug, she felt the seatbelt go slack. Lara now gripped the wheel with both of her hands, fighting for control of the vehicle. Though time to act was short, she could not prevent herself from taking huge gulps of air to stave off the darkness that threatened to encroach on her. If she passed out, all would be lost.
The door flopped open and closed as it banged against the trunks of the trees smattering the side of the hill. Timing was going to be her best friend, or her worst enemy. When she saw her chance, she clicked the clasp on her seatbelt. The door shuddered open, and Cora started to move towards the opening she had been looking for.
Lara caught the movement from the corner of her eye and reached out to snatch her from her escape. The car ratcheted back and forth from the sudden movement, the slope of the hill approaching its end as it fell towards a cluster of trees more than a hundred feet below it. The fall was not known for its survivors.
Cora fought off the woman and did not even look up to see if she could time it right. She flung herself from the car, the ledge ever so near. Then, the car flew off the edge.