COAL

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Too Late Now

Coal

The days passed slowly, painfully. Time felt heavy, an unbearable burden on my soul and body, suffocating the very life out of my bones. I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough to bear it.

Sitting at the large desk in my office, I stared blindly at the fireplace across the room, nestled in between floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Winter was coming. Soon, flames would fill the fireplace, flickering in a complex dance, releasing heat into the atmosphere.

But nothing would warm me.

Not anymore.

I suspected the cold pit in my stomach, and I would remain good friends for eternity. I leaned back, my hands clenching the armrests of the executive chair. The leather chair creaked in resistance.

Recent events ricocheted in my head like a pinball machine on crack. Immediately following the shocking revelation that Brinley was my mate, I’d insisted she not clean my room anymore. I’d used some ridiculous excuse that I didn’t want her around my things. When in reality, I couldn’t care less if she touched everything I owned.

The problem was her delectable scent...

…sweet lilac with a splash of moonlight.

It would be my undoing. It drove my Wolf, and I damn near crazy. Just one sniff and my mouth watered and my jaw ached to release my canines into her.

I shuddered and shook my head, trying to clear it.

The same chant, I’d been telling myself for the last two weeks, played on repeat in my head. I just needed some time away from her. And then I would be okay.

The sickly sweet ache in my chest would go away. Yes, I was drowning in the worst depths of hell right now, but with just a little bit of time, I could get back under control.

I had to—if I wanted to survive.

I pulled in an unsteady breath.

My father had resisted my request, the pretense of annoyance in his tone and body language, reminding me it was her job to clean the packhouse.

But I didn’t miss the cruel glint in his eye. No doubt, he wanted to torment her in some form or fashion, but there was no way in hell I was going to let him use me for that. In the end, I got my way, and Brinley no longer cleaned my suite.

A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts. Without waiting for my response, Calla let herself in.

I frowned.

She crossed the room and planted herself in my lap, the hem of her navy blue dress riding up her thighs. She wrapped her arms around my neck. Examining my sour expression, she cooed, “I’m sorry, baby. I can’t believe the Moon thought she would be a good choice for you.”

Her voice was sickeningly sweet. It turned my stomach. Funny, I didn’t remember her voice sounding like that before. But now, it grated my last nerve.

My wolf let out a growl. He didn’t appreciate her comment and envisioned snapping her head from her shoulders with his powerful jaws. I pushed him back under control.

“I don’t want to discuss it. It doesn’t matter. It’s not going to happen,” I bit out through clenched teeth.

I needed to get my shit together.

If I was going to move on with Calla, I needed to find some way to make it work. It was the last conversation I wanted to have, but I couldn’t avoid it.

I stood with her in my arms, released her to her feet, and walked over to the couch in the seating area across the room. She followed silently and sat down beside me.

Her chocolate brown eyes stared up at me. She gave my bicep an encouraging squeeze. It was clear, from her expression of pity, she thought I was distressed about having Brinley as a mate. She assumed I hated the idea—because that’s what I wanted everyone to believe.

But she could not have been more wrong.

I wanted Brinley…

With every fiber and breath in me.

…but I couldn’t have her.

She was never an option for me because my love was her death sentence. My Wolf whimpered. He didn’t like that we were the cause of our mate’s pain and danger. But our suffering didn’t matter. We could die a thousand deaths, for all I cared. There was just one thing that mattered. One thing I would never allow to happen.

Brinley would not die for me.

Still, letting her go was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. Maybe even impossible. Sleep had been shockingly elusive. I spent hours lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, my chaotic mind churning over and over, trying to find a solution.

I’d even considered just taking her and running, getting as far away from this nightmare as possible. If my choice was her or my title, I didn’t give a shit about being Alpha. It was easy. I’d choose her.

But it wasn’t that easy.

If I ran with her, there was no doubt in my mind my father would cut her invisible tie to the pack, turning her rogue.

It was a simple solution for him. Just like that, he could invoke the most unimaginable and cruel punishment on both of us—because once Brinley was a rogue, I would kill her.

I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.

No Wolf could. Regardless of love or family, our compulsion to kill a rogue Wolf was impossible to deny.

And if by some miracle, she escaped me, she would be on the hit list of every Wolf that crossed her path. Her life here was poor, but her options outside of the pack were nonexistent.

No. Brinley wasn’t mine to keep. And it killed me to see the features on her beautiful face pulled tight with pain, sorrow caused by my rejection. A hundred times, I almost gave in and ran to her to confess my love, not so I could keep her, but so that she would know the truth.

But that would be a selfish dick move.

It would only mess with her mind, and make it that much harder for her to let go. I also wasn’t sure if I could trust her with the truth. I felt the fire in her veins. If she accidentally said or did something to reveal the truth, she would be the one to pay the ultimate price.

No. I had to keep silent.

Keeping her alive was my only priority.

The clutter in my head was an unending cycle of thoughts and arguments that only ever led back to one inevitable option—her death.

I had to do the right thing…

…I had to let her go.

Calla’s hands found mine. She whispered to get my attention, “Coal?”

My eyes snapped to hers. I forced myself to refocus and tried to keep the gruffness out of my tone, but still, my voice lowered, “Calla, I need to know what you’re up for. Obviously, we already know the situation with my mate.” I could barely say the word without grimacing in pain. “You haven’t found your mate yet. I understand if you would rather cool things off between us because I need to start thinking long-term.”

She frowned, her face crinkling in confusion. “What does that mean…’thinking long-term’?”

“It means I’m going to be Alpha one day, and I need a suitable Luna.”

The hackles on her back rose. She stood. Her hands found her hips. Her voice rose in agitation, “And what makes you think I’m not a suitable candidate?”

I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. “You are not suitable because you still have a mate out there you haven’t found yet.”

Her eyebrows rose in understanding. She returned to her seat, a smile radiating from her face. “Coal, I love you! I’m never going to want anyone more than I want you, regardless of whether or not they are my mate.”

I held back a scoff. Calla had no idea what the mate bond felt like, the impossible pull it was to ignore. But it would be easier for her to deny her mate if I marked her first. We’d been together for two years. I could make this work. I told myself, repeatedly.

I sighed…

…maybe eventually I would believe it.

And once I marked Calla, I desperately prayed my addiction for Brinley would diminish. It should, the bond should wither and fade once I claimed another, but it wouldn’t entirely disappear until Brinley did as well.

The thought of that, her lips on another Wolf’s neck, biting into his flesh, made my Wolf roar savagely inside of me.

I growled, pushing him back harshly, reminding him we couldn’t beat the Alpha, so we had no other choice. It was either deny ourselves or forfeit her life. The decision was a simple as that, no gray area, only black and white.

He whimpered again, pacing and restless in my head.

I inhaled and released the air from my lungs slowly. I could make this work. Calla and I had been together for nearly two years. I just had to stop thinking. Being with her was like breathing.

Planting her hand against my chest, she bit her lip and looked up at me seductively through her lashes. It was a look I’d seen hundreds of times. And every time, my groin tightened, eliciting a throbbing awareness of exactly where I wanted to bury my cock.

Except for now.

Now there was only one shewolf I wanted to lose myself in. Only one shewolf I thirsted to sink my canines into.

Brinley.

Calla’s hand ran down my stomach until she reached my pants. She palmed my less-than-hard manhood and looked up at me in confusion. “Don’t you want me, baby?”

I wanted to scream no from the rooftops. I didn’t want her. But I was going to take her. I was going to fuck her senseless if that’s what it took to get my mind off of Brinley and back in the game.

A part of me felt guilty. With each new word that came from Calla’s mouth, I saw more and more how shallow she was, but even she didn’t deserve a wolf fantasizing about another female while fucking her.

But it couldn’t be helped, not right now. I was afraid my fantasies were the only thing that would get me through until we completed the mate bond. After that, I should be able to make love to Calla like I’d done so many times before.

A part of me wondered if she was using me too. We’d never discussed her being my Luna before because we both understood we had other mates in the future. I was surprised she’d so quickly tossed him away. Was she more interested in becoming a Luna than finding the man the Moon had destined for her?

I couldn’t contemplate it further, because she slid to the floor on her knees, and pushed my legs apart so she could wriggle between them. She undid my belt and pants, revealing me.

I watched as her lips slowly wrapped around me. My head fell back. My eyes fluttered shut.

But now, in my mind, I could only see another mouth wrapped around me—Brinley. Her succulent lips, soft and wet and moist. I shuddered hard at the image.

Calla drew in a sharp breath, thinking my reaction was to her. And in part it was. She knew everything I liked, and she was checking all the boxes.

My hands tangled in her hair. I held her head still and took over the motion, thrusting my hips, pushing myself even deeper.

I kept my eyes closed. I didn’t want to break the illusion—Brinley, kneeling, moss green eyes looking up at me while she eagerly accepted everything I had to give her.

Irrepressible need, to finish what she’d started, wound through my belly. I thrust harder and heard Calla gag slightly, but I couldn’t stop. The fantasy in my head had taken over. I shoved myself deeper down her throat. Again and again.

Even in her discomfort, Calla purred, sending shooting vibrations along my shaft.

Suddenly, I was there.

Contract and release, pleasure washing over me. I held still for a moment as Calla swallowed, and then pulled out.

Calla smiled up at me and licked my remaining release from her lips. Her expression was naughty. “What do you want to do to me now?”

It was at that exact moment that I remembered the time and shot to my feet in a panic. Calla stared up at me in confusion. I reached a hand down and pulled her up to her feet, muttering, “I want to, but we need to go. I told Ryder we’d be there in ten minutes.”

Her lips turned down into a frown.

I looked at my watch. Fuck. It was even later than I realized. My anxiety level rose. Brinley arrived to clean the suites around mine at 10:00 am. I always made it a point to be gone before 9:00 am, making sure I never crossed her path.

It was already 9:30 am.

I zipped my pants, grabbed Calla’s hand and tugged her out the door.

Only to come face to face with Brinley!

My stomach hit the floor.

She was early. She wasn’t supposed to be there until 10:00 am.

I was so surprised to see her, I forgot to breathe through my mouth, and her seductive and alluring scent slammed into me full force, almost knocking me off of my feet.

Sweet floral lilacs and moonlight incandescence washed over me, drowning me in her essence. I mumbled, “Brinley? What are you doing here?”

She looked equally stunned, mossy green eyes wide, flecks of gold swirling in their troubled depths. “I was working early today...I have...to go into town,” she trailed off, her gaze now firmly on the floor. Her lip quivered. My Wolf paced in my head. His urge to comfort her was almost overwhelming.

“Oh,” I muttered through clenched teeth, careful not to inhale through my nose again. I stared at her, mesmerized, frozen. I had no desire to move from the place I stood. I would have been happy just to sit and watch her succulent lips and the way her auburn hair fell over her shoulders.

I hadn’t seen her in two weeks.

I’d assumed all I needed was time to get over her.

I realized the depravity of that lie now.

I was a fool.

No amount of distance or length of time would lessen my captivation with her. It was preposterous to think I could overcome the Moon’s ordained attraction between us with tools so impotent as time and space.

Calla tried to snap me out of my trance, tugging me forward as she stepped around Brinley. I didn’t want to go.

Abruptly, my panic turned into full-blown horror.

I knew the instant Brinley smelled me on Calla because her head snapped up, eyes flashing full of fire. Dread ran through me, causing a pit in my stomach. The very last thing I wanted Brinley faced with was my release on Calla. Fuck!

The Wolf in Brinley’s eyes glared. A deep growl rumbled through her chest, an unmistakable challenge, signaling her intention to stake her claim over me. She gave no other warning. Shockingly fast, her fist shot out and connected with Calla’s face.

Calla yelped and stumbled back.

“Stop!” I ordered.

This confrontation couldn’t happen, not here, not now.

Brinley turned her icy gaze on me, her Wolf looking at me with contempt and disgust. I hated that look in her eyes...

…but I deserved it.

She needed to hate me. It would make her stronger, help her move on.

Without warning, Calla darted around my body and connected with Brinley’s shoulder. The crack of bone filled the air. Calla added viciousness to her assault, sneering, “He doesn’t want you!”

Just hearing those words caused revulsion to swirl in my belly. I had to fight the bile that rose in my throat. My Wolf roared inside my head at the ugly lie. I locked my jaw shut, so the words on my tongue couldn’t escape—how much I loved her, how much I wanted to hold her in my arms—if only just once.

Who was I kidding? Once would never be enough to satisfy me. Touching her would only fuel my addiction. I would always want more.

Brinley reacted to Calla’s assault by dropping on all fours. Black and white fur erupted through her skin. Her snout elongated revealing razor-edged white fangs. Her entire frame vibrated with aggression, her bloodlust tangible in the air.

I was stunned once more. Fuck, Brinley was a beautiful wolf.

But I couldn’t just stand there and stare. I needed to calm her down, and end this before it got any further out of hand.

Next to me, Calla shifted.

Fucking hell.

Now, I had two bloodthirsty beasts to contend with. I snatched both of their ears, applying pressure to the point of pain, to force them into motion. I didn’t need either of them losing control and taking a snap at me. If they did, I wouldn’t be able to contain my Wolf, and then all hell would break loose.

I strode through the hallway, my face twisted into a grimace, knowing the danger. If it happened, if my Wolf broke free, Calla would be on the losing end. He tolerated Calla because on some level he understood we had to defeat Alpha before he could win Brinley.

But if it came to a fight between the two females, his choice would always be to protect Brinley and take out any wolf that was a threat to her. If I was going to keep Brinley alive, I couldn’t afford to let him reveal our true emotions by taking a bite out of Calla, or worse.

I didn’t let go until we were out the door, and bellowed, “This is not going to happen!” It wasn’t a request. It was a command. This challenge ended now.

However, apparently, our sweet little Wolf did not like taking orders from me, because she stood with her fur all riled up, and released growl after growl, her dissatisfaction clear.

My head snapped in her direction, my eyes utterly black as my Wolf stared back at her now. Her blatant challenging display would not be tolerated. Regardless of our circumstances, I was the future alpha, and she would learn her place. My Wolf would guarantee it. He clawed to get out.

I turned so that we faced each other directly, and took a purposeful step forward, invading her personal space. She blinked a few times, startled by the presence of my Wolf in my eyes, but shockingly, she held her ground.

In my head, my Wolf smiled wickedly at her antics. He appreciated her fire but enjoyed, even more, the lesson he was going to give her in submission. Her obstinate behavior would never be allowed against him. He quivered with his desire for release.

I shuddered hard, forcing him back.

Without warning, Calla attacked Brinley from behind, her blind spot. Fury crashed over me. Not only had she disobeyed a direct command, but she also struck without proper warning of a challenge.

Growls erupted into the air. Both wolves tangled into a solid, writhing mass of hair, teeth, and claws as they rolled, kicking up the dirt around them.

Calla’s teeth sank deep in Brinley’s thigh, causing Brinley to yelp. The smell of blood filled the air, iron oxide and copper. Even if we hadn’t been watching, I would have instinctively known the scent of Brinley’s blood.

My Wolf almost lost his mind, the smell driving him to the edge of madness. My body quivered hard as he pushed forward, the line between skin and fur becoming blurred. He howled, fighting me to get to his mate, fighting to end the assault against her.

It took every ounce of my strength and determination to keep him at bay. There was no doubt he could end the conflict, exacting the punishment he deemed deserved. But his actions would start a war, a war we couldn’t win, a war that would end in Brinley’s demise. Tension ran through my entire frame, causing me to shake.

Brinley wrenched free, bucking Calla off. She spun around and lunged forward, her canines finding purchase in Calla’s shoulder. How quickly the tables turned.

Now, Brinley held the position of power. She stood over Calla, who writhed and fought beneath her. Brinley shook her head viciously, her teeth sinking deeper into Calla’s flesh. Calla stopped fighting, whining out her submission.

My Wolf puffed out his chest as we watched, pride in his mate flowing through us. Brinley was shockingly fast and strong. She lacked training. Her strength and speed were a gift from nature.

He moaned out his pleasure at seeing her dominating the other she-wolf. Heat burned inside of him. Images of taking her from behind crashed into my head. He wanted to hear her cry out as a result of us buried deep inside of her. He licked his lips at the thought, the perfect way to teach her submission. She would learn her place was beneath him, giving him anything he wanted without question.

Abruptly, another wolf shot forward, his large paws shaking the ground—Alpha!

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!

There was nothing I could do now.

Now, it was too late.

Alpha’s massive jaws snatched Brinley by the nape of her neck. Instantly, Brinley let go of Calla and fell limp in his grasp. He tossed her to the side like a ragdoll. Thunderous growls released from his chest as he towered over her. Brinley cowered, whimpering her submission, showing him her neck.

He shifted and snarled, “Shift!”

Fur disappeared, replaced with quivering flesh, as Brinley knelt at his feet.

“What the fuck are you doing?!”

Her bottom lip trembled. She whispered brokenly, “She...has his...scent on her.”

Ever the asshole, my father fired back, “Of course she does! He’s fucking her!”

I flinched hard. Brinley recoiled as if he’d hit her, the impact of his words doing far more damage than Calla’s bite and claws had. Her head dropped in defeat. Tears flowed unchecked from her eyes, splashing wet droplets into the dirt.

Brinley had been within her rights to challenge Calla. I was her mate. Even still, my father’s next words didn’t surprise me. “You have no rights. You never did!”

She shook uncontrollably beneath him. My hands clenched into fists, my claws drawing blood from my palms. Anxiety churned in my stomach, rolling into a pit of dread, his next words pushing me over the edge.

“Your punishment is death!” he snarled.

“No!” I bellowed.

His head snapped toward me, “She needs to be punished for attacking a member of this pack!”

If he tried to kill her, I wouldn’t stop my Wolf. Willingly, we would both go to our deaths, even if it only meant prolonging her death a few more minutes, because, without a doubt, after we were gone, he would still kill her. I needed another way to end this. My voice was guttural and thick, more animal than man, “If you try to kill her, my Wolf will stop you.”

He grunted out an ugly laugh, “Are you challenging me? Because we both know you won’t win.”

I ground my jaw together. “Find any other punishment you like, but if you try to end her life, my Wolf won’t allow it.”

He dismissed my warning, stating the truth, “Your Wolf will lose!”

“Yes!” I snapped. “And so my life would be forfeit! Is it worth it to you, to let me die for her?” Knowing how deep his hatred for her ran, the answer was probably yes, but I hoped maybe he had some speck of paternal instinct left.

Understanding lit his expression. He frowned. “You really wouldn’t be able to control him?”

I shook my head. Not only would I not be able to control him, I would join him wholeheartedly, but my father didn’t need to know that. As it was, he was staring at me with way too much understanding. He suspected I felt something for her. I could see it in his eyes.

I had to make my answer believable, angry enough to erase his suspicions.

My Wolf’s fight made sense to him. Wolves were primal creatures. We have a measure of control, but when pushed past the brink, they react as nature dictates. So, I gave him half of the truth, “He loves her.”

Brinley inhaled sharply, hope brewing in her eyes. I couldn’t let her hope. And I couldn’t let him see an ounce of concern from me. He needed to see the exact opposite. I continued angrily, “But make no mistake, I do not!”

Brinley cringed hard at my words. Her sorrow washed over me, leaving me dead and cold inside. Once again, I was only causing her pain.

My father seemed to accept my explanation. He faced her again and spat, “Fine. You shall live, but henceforth, you will reside in the woods, as nature intended.”

I was shocked. Outside of a physical beating, no other wolf had ever been punished so severely. But there was no way I could argue. He would know. He was already dangerously close to sniffing out the truth. I would have to be more careful from now on.

He growled, “Is that understood?”

Brinley was equally stunned. Fat tears coursed harder from her eyes. She dropped her head. There was no fight left in her. Her body shook as she whispered, “Yes, Alpha.”
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