COAL

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Order and Discipline

Brinley

I opened my eyes slowly. The sun shone brightly through the glistening drops of the waterfall. I was tucked inside of a warm cave. Too warm actually. A slight sheen of sweat covered my brow. Wolves were hot-blooded creatures by nature, our bodies suited for frigid winter temperatures. Our skin sides didn’t fare so well, but I was currently wrapped tightly, like a burrito, inside of a thick fur blanket.

I looked around hoping to see Coal, but I was alone. Disappointment flooded through me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d promised to stay the night, but he made no promises to stick around once daylight hit.

Last night had been the worst and the best night of my life. The worst because of the horrible pain I’d endured, but the best because I’d woken up several times during the night to find Coal’s strong arms banded around me like steel. Each time, he whispered soothing, calming words to lull me back into sleep.

It had been bliss, feeling his body against mine. Not just the tingles caused by our touch, but the absolute rightness that we were meant to be together.

How could he not feel that? My broken heart asked.

How could he be oblivious to a pull so strong that it took my very breath away? Was I that much weaker than him?

But then I remembered his eyes, deep pools of swirling cobalt, tormented by unseen demons. His eyes spoke of pain. But what had the power to hurt him?

Of course, he was gone now, so maybe his pain had been more related to having to suffer through being with me. I cringed.

I had to stop thinking about him.

I needed to get to work. Pulling back the blanket, I exhaled in relief when cooler air drifted over my heated skin. I looked down, and my breath caught in my throat. My teddy bear was tucked in my arms. I flushed hard with embarrassment. He had seen me.

I was sure anyone would laugh at me for keeping a teddy bear at my age. But Coal had taken the time to go through the snow and retrieve it before he left. Why?

I didn’t understand him at all.

Holding the bear to my cheek, I inhaled deeply. It smelled like him. My heart ached.

I forced myself to think about something else. My thoughts drifted to the events of last night, to the party, and the company of Onyx Moon and Langdon’s offer. Shockingly, the Enforcer had asked me to be his mate.

He’d assumed Alpha would release me because he was willing to be my mate. But he was wrong. Langdon didn’t understand what he was truly up against—a powerful Alpha who would do anything to torment me.

Most Alphas readily relinquished their hold on a pack member who found their mate in another pack. Normally, it was a celebrated event.

But as Alpha had repeatedly made clear, I was not a valued member of the pack, and he had no intention of ever releasing his hold on me.

Unfortunately, it was his choice to make. I had no control over it. The Moon had gifted each Alpha with power over pack members, ownership that went beyond name only. He, and he alone had complete authority. If a Wolf ran away without permission, the Alpha controlled the link of the member with the pack and could break it a whim.

To do so, meant certain death.

When a pack-link broke, the wolf instantly became rogue. And every other wolf couldn’t help but kill any rogue they came across. It wasn’t a choice. The impulse to kill the rogue couldn’t be denied. Even a family member or a mate couldn’t resist.

The ultimate punishment for disobedience to any Alpha, the Moon’s way to ensure order and discipline came first.

And Alpha’s cruelty had no limits. I’d seen it happen before. Three years ago, a shewolf found her mate in the Druid Pack. She begged Alpha to release her. But he hated her mate, so told her the price of her freedom was her innocence.

She had to give herself to him, to do whatever he wanted with her body, no matter how vile or degrading or painful it was—just so that he could enjoy the sadistic pleasure of damaging her beyond repair and leaving her mate to deal with the fallout.

She’d refused. I didn’t blame her. I would gladly accept death before I let that horrible man touch me. But rather than stay, she ran, and Alpha had broken her link to the pack. He’d made her rogue.

When she got to her mate, he couldn’t stop his compulsion. No Wolf could, regardless of family or mate status. In the middle of her screams and his tears, her mate tore out her throat.

When she was dead, the male was so devastated, he begged his brother to kill him so that he would be released to the Moon to be with her. A Wolf couldn’t take his own life and still expect to meet the Moon. He needed someone to do it for him. His brother had mercy and ended his suffering.

Genuinely heinous Alphas who abused the power the Moon had bestowed on them, had to be incredibly powerful to ward off the frequent attacks and coups their despicable behavior caused. Alpha had been challenged hundreds of times and won every single time, reveling in the slaughter.

I shivered at the thought.

But even if Alpha hadn’t been the epitome of evil, I still couldn’t have accepted Langdon. I meant what I said. I couldn’t take the place of his potential mate.

And I couldn’t let go of Coal. It devastated me, but the pull of the bond to him was too strong for me to ignore. Until he mated with another female and severed it, I wouldn’t be free. An image of him making love to and marking Calla invaded my thoughts. The pain was crippling. I hunched forward and panted, pushing the horrible reality out of my brain.

Brushing away the tears that had fallen down my cheeks, I stood to my feet slowly. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.

Coal had left some supplies including the propane heater. I wouldn’t need the heater whenever I was in wolf form, even in the snow. But it was nice to have as a backup just in case. I decided to leave the bear and the blanket there as well. They would be safe from the elements, and I got the impression that very few wolves even knew the cave existed. I certainly hadn’t. I felt around the dense foliage for an opening. It was small, but I was able to slip through. Once I was out, I shifted into fur.

I’d been surprised to find my schedule this week consisted of five days of work at Darcie Wyndermere’s home. I was excited about going there, but I couldn’t continue to take advantage of her hospitality without earning it. Once a week was one thing, but five days in a row of me just lounging around, bathing and sleeping, was too much.

When I arrived, I was still in wolf form, as per our arrangement. It was impossible to keep my paws completely clean as I ran the ten-mile trek, so I walked around to a back entrance and lifted my front paw to press the bell.

Darcie threw the door open and stared at me, her eyes raking down my frame. I was startled by her altered response. Was I not supposed to be here today? Maybe I had gotten the day wrong, I thought in embarrassment.

“Come in, child!” she rushed.

My brow furrowed at her unexpected tone. I stepped into the mudroom. There was a sink I used to clean my hands and a washcloth for my feet. Darcie had also clothes laid out for me so that I could get dressed as soon as I was clean.

Normally, she left me alone to change, but today she shocked me when she stayed and ordered, “Shift!”

My heart beat faster. What was going on with her today?

But I obeyed, shifting into my skin. I stood naked, and again, her eyes raked down my frame. I crossed my arms over my chest, feeling self-conscious.

“Turn around,” she demanded.

I froze. My wounds had healed, but even without seeing them, I knew scars remained, a permanent testament to my pain. I didn’t want her to see my shame. My voice broke as I whispered, “Why?”

The intensity of her stare increased tenfold, her mouth set in a thin hard line. I realized with a shock--she knew!

But how?!

She didn’t answer. Instead, she leveled her gaze, letting me know I had no choice.

Biting my lip, I slowly complied, turning my back to her.

Darcie drew in a sharp breath.

I cringed. How bad were they?

Gentle fingers traced along one of my scars, causing me to jump at her unexpected touch. She pulled away and said softly, “Get dressed.”

By the time I turned back around, she’d left the room. I trembled, unsure what to make of her behavior, and worried that I was in trouble.

Trying to contain my shaking, it took me a minute or two longer than normal to clean my hands and feet. When I finished, I stepped into the panties and jeans, slipped on the bra and pulled a t-shirt over my head.

Inhaling a deep breath to steady my nerves, I made my way to the library. I took one step through the door and stopped cold.

Darcie wasn’t alone.

A large male sat across from her.

I knew him.

A loud gasp escaped my throat, “Langdon?!”

Before I could ask any questions, Darcie murmured, “I see you’ve met my son.”

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