COAL

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Read Between the Lines

Brinley

I turned back around to find Coal seated on the couch with his head in his hands. I didn’t know what to say. Too much had happened, too much for me to process.

Before I could even try to come up with something, Darcie strode through the door with Langdon right behind her, each carrying a tray of food.

Coal’s head snapped up.

Shock coursed through me.

His eyes were glistening.

…were those tears?

Darcie’s perceptive and sharp eyes glanced at me and then landed on Coal. He blinked a few times and stood to his feet. He maintained eye contact with her, never looking at me, his voice stiff and formal. “Thank you for the offer of lunch, but I have interrupted your day enough. It’s time for me to leave.”

My heart clenched. Every fiber in my body rejected the thought of Coal leaving me. But I still had no idea what to say to him. The hurt was still so fresh and raw.

Darcie tilted her head to the side as she stared up at him. Her voice rang with motherly authority. “Not yet, young wolf, I prepared a meal. It would hurt my feelings if you declined to eat it. Please sit.”

He stared at her like she had spoken another language but obediently sank back down on the sofa without another word.

Darcie’s piercing gaze fell on Langdon, “Please entertain our guest for a moment. I am certain you boys can get along for a few minutes without us.” Langdon looked a bit forlorn like she’d just told him he had to go to bed early, without any supper, but he didn’t argue with her.

Darcie then swiveled her head and focused her hawk-like attention to me. “Brinley, I could use your assistance in the kitchen.”

She stepped out the door without waiting for my response, but it was clear from her tone, she wasn’t asking. She hadn’t raised her voice, no, not at all, but she had never spoken to me so forcefully before.

I hurried after her.

She didn’t stop when she got to the kitchen. Instead, she continued toward the far side of the house, the farthest distance from the living room and stepped outside to a small porch. She settled down on a settee and motioned with her hand for me to sit in the chair next to her.

I didn’t question her. I just sat down and waited patiently with my hands in my lap. Obviously we would not be joining the ‘boys’ for lunch, or having any lunch really, as there was no food out here.

Darcie hesitated for a beat and then steadied her gaze at me. “Before he passed away, my mate was Onyx Moon’s Beta for thirty years.”

My heart skipped a beat.

She’d never mentioned her mate and Langdon had never talked about his father, so I’d assumed something happened to him, but her words were still difficult to hear, and my heart hurt for her loss. I mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

She couldn’t hide the pain as her face fell. She took a moment and then took a deep breath before releasing it. “He was a good Wolf.”

I nodded. He had to have been, to have her as a mate and Langdon for a son.

“But that didn’t mean he was always an easy man to get along with,” she spoke pointedly.

“Dominant genes of Alphas and Betas drive them. They think differently than other wolves. They react differently. And frequently, their behavior is not a reflection of the facts everyone else can see, or even only the facts they can see. Instead, their instincts direct them; there is more beneath the surface.”

Darcie took a breath and waited with her eyebrow raised at me.

“Yes, ma’am” I whispered, letting her know I was listening very carefully to everything she had to say. It was clear this wasn’t a casual talk. She wanted me to learn something. And it was about Coal.

“They’re passionate, and they love like no other.” Her mouth formed a small smile, eyes glazing over for a moment, lost in her memories.

I waited silently.

Her eyes refocused on me. “Not just physically, although they do have significant skill there...” I blushed, not missing her meaning. “...but they are bound severely. It goes against the very fabric of who they are to deny themselves the mate bond. It’s not easy. Not many would have the strength to do it, even for a day, let alone longer than a month.”

I nodded. I was pretty sure now where she was going with this conversation.

“You have been gifted with an Alpha as a mate. Only the strongest shewolves can handle that responsibility.” She tilted her head and emphasized, “I didn’t say the best shewolves, I said strongest. A certain level of fortitude is required to handle them and the responsibilities that come along with them.”

“I want to be strong,” I whispered, “but...”

“You’re hurt...he hurt you,” she acknowledged. “I’m not suggesting you ignore that pain or act like it never happened. You need to heal from it. He was the one who inflicted it, but he is also the one who can heal your heart like no other...if you will let him.”

“How can I trust him not to hurt me again?” Tears crested my eyelashes. My mouth twisted as emotions and memories of my pain crashed over me. I whimpered, “I feel so overwhelmed.”

She leaned forward and gathered my hands in hers, her voice soft and comforting, “I know you’re overwhelmed, little pup. That’s exactly the reason you shouldn’t make the decision right now to deny yourself your mate. And as far as hurting you again, he will.”

My eyes opened wide. I breathed, “What?”

“Coal isn’t perfect. He will make decisions you don’t understand or agree with. And the male will drive you crazy. But look beneath the surface, listen carefully to what he says, and even to what he doesn’t say. Whether he’s reacting due to facts or just out of instinct, frequently, there is more going on than what you realize.”

I whispered, “Okay.”

She wiped the tears from my cheeks and spoke warmly, “Now, dry your tears, little pup. Are you hungry?”

I nodded.

She’d given me much to think about. We walked back to the living room to find Langdon and Coal finished with their food. They were both sitting stiffly, staring off in stony silence.

They’d behaved just like she instructed. They clearly didn’t like it, but they had done it. If the situation wasn’t so tense, I would have laughed at their expressions. Maybe Darcie did know a thing or two about dealing with dominant males.

Coal’s head snapped in my direction, his body tense.

I gave him a shy smile.

He inhaled sharply, eyes opening wide, no doubt startled by my drastic change in mood. I made my way to the trays of food, selected a sandwich and a drink, and then sat down on the couch next to him.

A low rumble of pleasure coursed through his chest. His Wolf was happy with my selection of seat. My Wolf was too, prancing around in my head, pleased that her mate was paying attention to her.

I could feel his gaze burning into the side of my face. My cheeks blushed, but I couldn’t look at him. So I stared at Darcie, who gave me an almost imperceptible nod.

I didn’t have all of the answers. I was still hurt. Coal and I still had things to work through. But Coal had made it clear he was willing to do whatever it took, going forward. That was enough for right now.

Realizing I was going to continue to ignore him, Coal turned to face Darcie. She smiled at him. “Okay. Now that we are all calmed down, why don’t we discuss what’s really important? What is your plan to be with Brinley?”

Instantly, Coal’s posture tightened, his spine stiff and response short, “I can’t discuss that.”

I was confused by his abrupt mood change. Darcie and Langdon just wanted to help.

Darcie showed no emotion and spoke calmly, “I understand, young alpha. Your instinct is loyalty. It’s commendable and what I expected from you.”

Oh, now I understood. Coal didn’t want to betray any pack trust. I placed my hand on his arm to get his attention. His cobalt blue eyes instantly found mine.

“You can trust them,” I murmured. ”They have done nothing but help and protect me.”

Coal’s expression softened, but he gave no response.

Darcie continued, “Why don’t we start. And then you can join in as you see fit.”

Coal returned his attention to Darcie and remained silent.

“We believe that answers, and possible solutions, might be found if we could determine who Brinley’s father was. My mate was the Onyx Moon Beta until two years ago when he...” her voice hitched. She didn’t finish her sentence. Instead, she moved on to another. “Alpha Wilder gave us access to look through the Onyx Moon archives when we visited with him two days ago.”

I shuddered when I remembered that meeting. Alpha Wilder was an intimidating Wolf. He was huge and radiated power. His eyes were hard, but not cruel.

Coal’s reaction was a little more intense. His eyes blazed as they looked at me. “You did what?”

My heart raced in my chest, not expecting quite so significant of a response from him. I didn’t expect him to like the thought of me talking to another alpha really, but I also hadn’t expected him to be angry about it.

“Easy...” Darcie soothed, her voice taking on a tranquil but firm quality, “...take a minute to consider the circumstances.”

Coal exhaled purposefully but remained rigid.

“My son is in danger, a potential target. He stood up to your father for your mate.” Coal flinched. “As far as we understand, your alpha is not a forgiving man, particularly when it comes to Brinley. Retaliation is to be expected and must be planned for.”

A muscle in Coal’s jaw twitched. I could tell, he didn’t disagree with her argument. He spoke quietly, “What is Alpha Wilder going to do?”

It was a bold question, a direct inquiry into Onyx Moon pack business, but Darcie answered it openly and honestly, “He said he wasn’t going to war over your mate. He wouldn’t risk the lives of his pack for that reason. But, they are wary and will add preventative measures to protect Langdon, and the Enforcers he runs with, against an attack.”

Coal nodded his head. “And Brinley? Did you find anything about her father?”

Darcie shook her head. “No. There was no record of who he might be.”

“What about her mother?” Coal asked quietly.

“What do you mean?” I looked at him in confusion. “We already know who my mother was.”

“Yes,” he spoke hesitantly, “but were you able to find anything that would indicate what she meant to my father?”

Oh. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know that answer, but I tried to keep my voice steady, “What do you know about their relationship?”

It felt so odd to even refer to them as having a relationship. I could only recall a handful of times I’d ever seen them in the same room, and then they never spoke.

Coal turned to face me on the couch and gathered up my hands. He stared down at our hands as he spoke, “When your mother died, my father...he struggled...he spiraled down into alcohol. I made the mistake of asking him about her one night.”

My heart pounded in my chest. There was something ominous about his words. I breathed, “How was it a mistake?”

“Because he got angry...,” Coal stopped. His eyes came up to meet mine. “Instead of giving me an answer, he broke...three of my ribs.”

I gasped, tears coming to my eyes. “Why…why would he do that to you?”

“I don’t know.” Coal shook his head sadly. “But that’s the reason why I didn’t try to convince him to agree with me. I don’t know what happened between them, but he will not listen to reason and doesn’t care about my wants and desires. Nothing matters to him, not when it comes to you.”

Darcie told me to read between the lines. She said Coal had likely acted on instinct or information I didn’t have. She’d been right. Alpha beat his own young son just because he’d asked a question about my mother!

Coal’s features darkened, his voice low, “I am ready to fight for you. But I’m not strong enough yet. I’ve been working with Ryder every minute that I can, to prepare, because I’ll only get one shot. There is only one way I can have you, just one way for us to be together. I’m going to kill him.”

My chest hurt. A man was going to have to die for me to be with my mate. I wanted Alpha dead plenty of times, but those were just morbid fantasies. It wasn’t real. This was real. And it wasn’t just any man. Coal was getting ready to kill his own father to be with me.

What would it cost him? What emotional toll would it take out of him, to slay the father he loved as a child, the man he had once called daddy?

Langdon interjected for the first time, his voice tight, “It won’t be enough.”

I lifted my head toward him. ” What do you mean?”

“Coal fighting against his younger brother, even every minute of the day, won’t be enough to push his skills, to get him ready. He needs a much stronger opponent.”

Coal eyed him with a bit of a smirk. “What are you suggesting?”

Why were males always so eager to fight?

Langdon’s lips curled up into a smirk of his own. “You know exactly what I’m suggesting. I just need to see if I can get two other Enforcers to join us.”

“Two? Why do you need them?” I asked.

Darcie murmured, “Langdon is a strong and fierce fighter. He has Beta blood. But Coal is an Alpha. He was bred to be stronger. It’s in his genes. And he will be fighting against a powerful Alpha. Three on one should be a good place to start.” She nodded in agreement.

Three on one?! “Wait. Are you suggesting Coal fight three Onyx Moon warriors at the same time?” I tried not to panic.

Darcie gazed at me steadily and repeated, “To start. You were right. Coal’s father is strong, and whatever madness he holds against you will only further the flame in him. I would fully expect him to be able to be able to kill three wolves, even ones as skilled as my son. I’m guessing it would take four to five before your Alpha began to break a sweat.”

The imagery of her words flooded my mind. Alpha against five wolves—winning.

And Coal would be fighting him alone!

I snapped to my feet. Coal looked up at me in surprise. I faced him and mumbled, “No!”

He stood to his feet and reached for me, but I pulled out of his grasp.

He spoke soothingly, “I will be fine against three. They’re not trying to kill me.”

Langdon flashed a wicked grin, “Oh, to be effective, the fighting needs to be real.”

I ignored him. I didn’t care about that right now. It was the bigger picture that was the problem. Coal was going to fight—and die—for me. I wouldn’t let that happen. I understood now. I finally saw the bigger picture…why Coal rejected me, why he couldn’t find a solution.

Because there wasn’t one...

“No, no, no!” I paced the floor.

Coal tried again, “I’ll be okay...I promise you.”

I spun to face him, “No! That’s not what I’m talking about!”

He hesitated, confused at my response.

“It doesn’t matter if you can beat three, or even more, wolves in a fight, because no matter what, the odds are not in your favor! Not when the fight is against your father. I can’t let you do that. I won’t! You’re not going to die because of me!”

Tears coursed down my cheeks.

Coal had been right.

My heart hurt so deeply, I thought it might explode out of my chest, but I wasn’t changing my mind. I gasped, “I’m sorry...but I will not be your mate!”

Coal stared at me in stunned silence.

I didn’t give him a chance to respond. Instead, another sob broke from my chest, and I ran from the room.

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