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I stood frozen, my brain unable to keep up with her astounding words. Langdon was her son?!

How was that possible? What was really going on here?

Obviously, there was no coincidence. Fear washed over me, uncertain of their intentions.

My gaze went from Darcie and rested on Langdon. He reclined comfortably on the couch, but the tight line of his mouth belied his relaxed posture. His eyes were equally attentive as hers had been, carefully looking me up and down, assessing my body for any remaining injuries.

When he finished, his gaze returned to mine. “I see Coal kept his word about spending the entire night with you.” There was relief in his tone at my physical improvement, but his mouth held a small frown.

I blushed deeply, my cheeks warming.

Langdon had to know Coal only achieved my level of healing by spending the night with our naked bodies pressed together. I didn’t reply to his remark.

“Please dear, why don’t you sit down?” Darcie motioned me further into the room. I took a few tentative steps and sank down into the nearest chair, posture rigid and wary.

“I’m sure you have questions,” she began.

That was an understatement.

Rather than wait for me to ask, she continued, “After you began working for me, I suspected you were not treated favorably in your pack, so when my son was scheduled to attend the Winter Solstice Celebration, I asked him to check on you.” Her lips pursed together and her eyes flashed angrily. “Little did I know just how valid my concerns were. Needless to say, Langdon’s report back to me was appalling.”

I stared at him with wide eyes and blurted, “Is that why you asked me to be your mate? Because your mother felt sorry for me? Why would you do that?”

Darcie’s eyebrows shot up, her sharp gaze landing on him. From her reaction, I guessed he hadn’t included that little fact in his report.

I looked down at my hands, no longer able to hold either of their gazes and blushed again, this time out of shame, remembering everything he’d seen me go through.

“Don’t do that,” Langdon growled low.

My attention snapped up to him.

Topaz eyes flashed, his large hand curled around the edge of the sofa, knuckles white under the pressure of his grip. I recoiled slightly, trying to push myself further into the chair, confused by his sudden anger. My heart raced.

He ignored his mother’s intense stare, his words only for me. “None of this is your fault. It is not your shame to bear. It is theirs! The Alpha lacks honor. His behavior was disgusting, far more than I anticipated when my mother asked me to find you.”

His head dropped, the anger fading from his tone replaced with sadness. “I’m sorry that my attention toward you caused you so much suffering.”

“You didn’t know,” I whispered.

“It’s common knowledge that your Alpha is a bastard, but I never anticipated this level of depravity and cruelty in sentencing and punishing a helpless shewolf in such a manner,” he snarled.

I fought back my tears. Langdon had seen just one day in my life. Did he understand that every day was the same? They were all filled with heartache and pain.

Darcie’s voice was calm and soothing, “Child, we only know bits and pieces. Can you fill in the rest for us? When Langdon returned last night, he made some inquiries and found the Alpha has quite a vendetta against you. Why is that?”

I hesitated and bit my lip. “I appreciate your concern, but the circumstances will not change my situation. The reasoning behind why Alpha hates me, will not change the fact that he hates me, and he will continue to torment me with every opportunity.”

Langdon murmured, “I know this is hard for you, to rehash the past, and the pain it contains—”

I shook my head and stopped him there. “You think you understand the man you are up against, but you do not. He is a monster. He will not change. Many have tried to defeat him. All have died in their endeavor,” my voice broke. “I cannot let you get further involved in a hopeless situation.”

“But—” Langdon began again.

“Stop!” I cut him off. “Didn’t you see enough last night to understand that helping me will only hurt me? As long as I can stay under the Alpha’s radar, the safer I will be. And the safer you will be. You’ve already risked too much just by defending me. Alpha will not forget or forgive your actions, which means you could already have a target on your head.” The reality of those words weighed heavily on my heart. I whispered, “If something happens to you, it will be all my fault.”

“I can take care of myself,” Langdon replied through gritted teeth.

“Can you really?” I pressed, trying to make him recognize the significant danger he might already face. “If Alpha challenged you, can you win?”

Fury passed over Langdon’s countenance. Hands curled into fists, his jaw twitched. “No. I couldn’t beat him. But I am rarely alone.”

“And so other wolves will die,” I said sadly, “All because of me. Don’t you see? I can’t let that happen.”

“Let me take care of myself,” Langdon insisted. “Right now, you are the one in the line of fire. You mentioned staying under the radar, but you’re clearly not. My sources indicate Alpha has already tried to kill you twice in the last month and a half! Is that true?”

My face twisted in pain at the memories. I mumbled, “The night he found out I was Coal’s mate. Alpha started toward me with the intention of ending my life right then. Coal stopped him, insisting an innocent shouldn’t be killed.”

Coal’s words had haunted my every waking moment since. He didn’t want me, not then and not in the future.

I inhaled deeply to steady myself before continuing, “I attacked Calla. Alpha sentenced me to death, but Coal convinced him his Wolf would sacrifice himself to a challenge he knew he couldn’t win if Alpha tried to go through with it.”

Langdon’s expression was hard as he listened. I shivered as I remembered. Way too frequently, my life hung in the balance, because of that madman.

“Brinkley, look at me,” Darcie said. Her tone left no option for disobedience.

My head snapped in her direction.

Her tone softened, “I understand that you’re reluctant to have us involved, but like it or not, it is our choice to remain invested in you and your future. We’re not going anywhere. So, to keep us as safe as possible, I need you to share the details. I’m sorry you’re hurt by having to relive ancient pain, but it must be done.”

Resignation washed over me. They weren’t going to let it go, and I couldn’t argue Darcie’s logic. A pit grew in my stomach, churning. I inhaled slowly, trying to prepare myself for conversation I really didn’t want to have.

In and out.

In and out.

My lip quivered as I began, “I’m a bastard pup.”

Langdon growled at my description. Darcie silenced him with a look. I continued shakily, “Alpha sentenced both my mother and me to be shunned by the pack. We were allowed to live, but never allowed to never have friends...” My voice broke. Tongue thick, I swallowed and wiped away a tear that breached my eyelashes.

Painful memories of loneliness as a little girl washed over me. I just wanted to be loved and never understood why I was always hated instead.

“Come here, child,” Darcie murmured with her arms outstretched toward me. I didn’t have the will or the strength to resist her. I stood to my feet and shuffled across the room, sitting next to her on the couch.

She wrapped her arms around me and cooed softly in my ear, “Shh...I’m sorry. I know it hurts, little pup. But you are not alone. Not anymore.”

My head dropped to her shoulder, and the dam broke. A torrent of tears coursed out of my soul. My chest heaved with the force of my uncontrolled sobs.

My wolf joined my outcry. Nose pointed toward the Moon who had abandoned us, sorrowful howls poured out of her, a symphony of her wails mixed with mine, resounded in my head. Together we cried for all we lost, for all we never had, mourning our lost childhood.

Langdon remained silent, his face a hard mask, watching me with his mother.

Time didn’t exist, just pain.

Erratic gasps slipped through my lips, sucking in air, but never enough to soothe the searing ache in my chest.

Darcie did not interrupt, never mentioned my claws had drawn blood in her back, as I clung to the only loving skin touch I’d known since my mother died when I was ten.

Instead, she held me and rocked our bodies gently, murmuring soft shushing noises in my ear.

The difference was slight, barely noticeable from one slow second to the next, but little by little, a new life began to build inside of me, a new strength filling the void of wretchedness purged with my anguished cries.

Gradually, my tears quieted, my panting eased into slow deep breaths, oxygen supplying renewed lungs. Only the occasional hiccup and sniffle released from my throat.

My head still buried in Darcie’s comforting breast, she leaned back slightly, her hands cupping my chin, forcing me to look her in the eyes. Her eyes brimmed with the understanding that only age and compassion could bring. “Now then, little pup, are you ready to go on?”

I nodded and wiped the remaining tears from my face. I glanced over to Langdon, embarrassed he had witnessed my meltdown and mumbled, “Sorry.”

His jaw clenched. “What did I say about that?” He worked to relax his tense expression and gave me a small smile, reiterating his thoughts, “Not your fault. You have nothing to apologize for.”

I just nodded. Darcie drew my attention back to her. With a wry look, she murmured, “Okay. Not to unleash another flood of tears, but I need to ask you some more questions.”

Shockingly, I was able to make my mouth curl into the smallest of smiles at her gentle attempt to lighten the atmosphere. Voice even more gentle, tentative, still not sure I wouldn’t break down at her next question, Darcie asked, “Who is your father?”

Well, that was the million dollar question, wasn’t it?

I answered honestly, “I don’t know.”

Darcie spoke of him in the present tense, but I didn’t think he was alive. Otherwise, where had he been all of those years? Unless he just hadn’t wanted us. I bit my lip to keep it from trembling.

Darcie asked additional questions. I answered as best as I could but didn’t really have more information than what I’d already given. During a lapse in the conversation, she checked her phone and murmured, “I should get lunch together.”

Still, she didn’t move from the couch, her eyes watching me with worry and concern.

Langdon interrupted, “Mother, could you give us a moment alone?”

Her head snapped to him, eyes narrowed. He held her piercing gaze without wavering. They were silent, but it was clear they were having a conversation.

After a reluctant moment, Darcie stood to her feet and sighed, “Okay, lunch will be served in the kitchen. Come down when you’re ready.”

I watched her walk out the door, my heart racing, wondering what Langdon wanted to say.

I waited for him to speak.

Langdon rubbed the back of his neck with his hand and took a deep breath, before staring at me intently. “I didn’t ask you to be my mate because of my mother. I asked because I wanted you.”

He paused. “I still do.”

I inhaled sharply. My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t want to hear those words. I couldn’t give him what he wanted. My voice broke, “I can’t.”

Langdon sat back. The gleam dimmed in his eyes, resignation for my decision, evident in the loosening of his jaw. “I know.”

“I’m sorry, the bond...” I tried to explain. But how could I really? The compulsion to be with Coal was all-consuming, powerful and unrelenting. I could think of nothing else.

Having had a taste of him in the cave was torture to me because now I knew what I would be missing once he was no longer mine. I’d remember Coal’s tender moments and soft touches, the way his body had grown hard beneath me, all of it forever etched in my mind.

And all of him belonged to another woman. Not me. He had so easily discarded the Moon’s choice for him and selected another. I forced my sorrow back into the deep recesses of my mind. I did not need another episode like before. I would not continue to break down. If this was my life, if this was the hand I had been dealt, I would find a way to survive it.

Langdon studied me. “I cannot fathom how he could let you go.” He shook his head and spoke quietly. “If I had found the one for me...”

His eyes took on a wistful expression, sad. “I would hold her and never let her go.”

My heart broke for him. He was physically strong, an Onyx Moon Enforcer, but he was still just a man that wanted to find love.

I murmured, “I know you think she’s gone because you haven’t found her yet, but I don’t believe that. You’re a good wolf. The Moon gives good things to wolves like you.”

Truthfully, I believed my words. Langdon would one day meet his mate, which was another reason I had to say no. I’d been rejected once. I couldn’t imagine getting involved with another wolf, only to have him find the one he was intended for, after the fact, and then kick me to the curb.

Langdon was quiet for a long time, lost in his thoughts. Finally, he looked up. “We need a plan.”

“A plan?”

He stood to his feet. “Yes. Let’s go down and eat, and we can discuss it with my mother.”

Sounded good to me, my belly was rumbling. I followed him into the kitchen.

Darcie was bent over, pulling a casserole from the oven. She glanced up and gave me her signature soothing smile, and walked to put the dish on the table.

There was already a tray full of small sandwiches, as well as a large bowl of mixed fruit. Lunch, today, came with her Southern Lemonade, her special recipe. I loved her lemonade.

And I could almost feel my mouth salivating just looking at all of the heavenly food. Although, she sure had prepared a lot of it, nearly double what she and I usually ate.

Very quickly into the meal, I realized why.

Langdon easily wolfed down half of it. Darcie swatted him on the arm and chastised playfully, “Slow’re going to give yourself a stomach ache eating that fast.”

He swigged down his drink, flashed her a brilliant smile, with fang, and then grabbed another sandwich. I giggled. It was nice to see a normal family interact.

When Langdon finally came up for air, he repeated his earlier comment, “We need a plan.”

The idea made me queasy. I didn’t want to cause myself any more trouble than I already had. But Darcie was already on board. “Yes, I agree.”

“I want to take her to talk with Alpha Wilder.”

“What?” I gasped. “I cannot get another Alpha involved!”

Darcie reached her hand across the table and held my fingers. “It will be alright, dear. I agree with Langdon. And it’s just a conversation, nothing more.”

Langdon nodded. “He is out this week, traveling to the packs in the north. There have been reports of more vampire attacks.”

I couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath. Vampires were even more dangerous than rogues. It had been many years since our pack had a run-in with one. Darcie held my hand tighter.

“The vampire group is small, three at the most, we believe. From what we have learned, a young female leads them,” Langdon explained. “Their attacks are primarily on humans, but they have gotten too close to wolf borders for comfort. Alpha Wilder is meeting with the Alphas of the Druid, and White Fang packs to discuss strategy. But he should return within a week. We can meet with him then.”

I exhaled in relief. At least I had time before I had to face another Alpha. I still didn’t like the idea. And maybe in the meantime, I could change their minds.

Langdon studied me carefully. I squirmed a bit in my chair. What other great ideas could he have? I should never have asked that question, because the answer shocked me when he said, “You need to learn to fight.”

“Why?” I gasped. “I could never beat Alpha in a challenge!”

“No. I didn’t mean that. I simply meant you need to train so you can get stronger, an added layer of defense should you need it. I sense unusually strong power in you, more than a normal shewolf. It wouldn’t surprise me if you have Alpha blood in your veins.”

I dropped my fork and stared at him wide-eyed. “What?”

He rubbed his chin. “I can’t explain it. It just a feeling I get around you. Honestly, it’s another reason I was so surprised to learn of your vile treatment and rejection, especially the rejection. Coal’s wolf has to be able to sense the same thing I can. A Wolf, like that, would want an equally strong mate.”

My mind was reeling. But it didn’t really matter if I had some unknown inner strength. Coal still rejected me. I tried to swallow around the familiar lump in my throat.

Darcie interjected, “She is scheduled to come here for the next four days. You can use the gym in the basement.”

Langdon nodded. “Good idea.” He looked at me. “What do you think?”

My thoughts were a jumbled mess, but I was able to piece some words together. I turned to Darcie and spoke firmly, “I can’t continue to take advantage of your kindness...not without working for it.”

She pressed her lips together. I wondered if she was trying to hold back her initial thoughts on the matter. Then she nodded, “ will work for two hours a day. For the rest of the time, you will train with Langdon.”

My stomach fell to the floor. “Wait! You want me to train with him?” Langdon was an Enforcer, a warrior. He would eat me up and spit me out before I could even shift.

Langdon flashed me a wicked grin, fang and all.

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” I chastised him.

He laughed. “I’ll go easy on you...for a while.”

Oh brilliant. I didn’t miss the deviousness in his tone. Another problem came to mind. “It won’t work. I can’t have Langdon’s scent on me. People will gossip, and Alpha will find out.” Not to mention Coal’s wolf would lose his damn mind. I definitely did not want to anger that wolf.

“True,” Darcie acknowledged. “Looks like your showers will come at the end of the day now.”

I tried to come up with another excuse, but nothing came to mind. Langdon stood to his feet. “So, shall we get started?”

“What?” I inhaled sharply. “You want to start now?” I tried to control my trembling. It was one thing to worry about having to fight him. It was quite another actually to do it.

The wicked gleam in his eye was front and center. “Oh, yes.”

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