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COAL

By EmelineRousselot All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

Holding Out

Coal

From the corner of my eye, I saw tension run through Ryder’s rigid frame. No one else in the room noticed, and I didn’t call attention to him by looking in his direction. Instead, I stayed focused on Langdon and replied tightly, “Alpha Mason refused to change his mind.”

“Fuck,” Langdon scowled. “How are we supposed to defend ourselves from a vampire threat without his help? Did he give any reason for his abrupt turnaround on this matter? Something had to have happened.”

I spoke carefully, not wanting to reveal too much. ”Mason is under the impression the vampires are no longer a threat...to him.”

Jax’s jovial mannerisms were utterly stripped away. His hazel eyes pierced darkly into mine, his Wolf peering at me, 100% focused, the deadly Enforcer revealed behind his carefully fabricated façade of humor. Or maybe it was just an alternate personality, the one he was comfortable in until the real work had to be done. Jax growled, “What the fuck does that mean? How can he be so damn sure? And if it’s true, he’s just ready to let the rest of us hang out to dry?”

My thoughts traveled back to our meeting with the Alpha and his cryptic words, “I have no intention of getting involved with the vampires again.”

Sitting across the desk from him in his office, I’d scowled. ”Why? A unified effort was your idea, to begin with, and now you’re just walking away?”

A vein in his neck pulled tight. “They’re no longer a threat to my pack, and I will not provoke them when peace is within my grip. I will not sacrifice my wolves unnecessarily.”

I forced myself to remain in the stodgy chair across from his mahogany desk and spoke through gritted teeth, “How can you be so sure?”

“I don’t have what he’s looking for.” Mason’s words had sent a chill through me. They were oddly reminiscent of my conversation with the vampires.

Aatos had purred in his usual jackass arrogant tone, “We do not want a war. We are simply looking for some information and seek an audience with your Alpha.” It was the reason he wanted to speak to me—he requested I coordinate a meeting between them. Aatos suspected Alpha would just attempt to kill them and not listen to anything they had to say, otherwise. He was right. If I knew anything about my father, he would jump at any opportunity to wipe out a vampire. His Wolf had a bloodthirsty fascination for them.

Aatos had gone on to explain they preferred not to walk into an ambush or incite a conflict with ’unnecessary casualties.′ His lip had curled up in an arrogant grin, flashing his fangs, giving me the distinct impression he didn’t think there would be casualties on their side, only the wolves. Overconfident, cocky bastard.

But maybe he wasn’t as confident as he wanted me to believe. He couldn’t be if he needed me to coordinate the meeting. However, even if I organized it, it certainly didn’t ensure their safety. Alpha wouldn’t give a fuck to attack if he felt provoked, regardless of the context of an amicable meeting.

I’d asked for more details, but Aatos wouldn’t explain anything more than that. He refused to tell me what he wanted to discuss with my father, what information they were looking for and even more importantly, who they worked for. If nothing else, I understood they were acting on someone else’s behalf. Somehow, that bit of information seemed critical.

All of those thoughts had rolled through my brain as I listened to Alpha Mason. I needed more information, and I suspected the Alpha had what I wanted to know. I just needed to ask the right questions. A direct approach wasn’t working, so I came at it from the side and snarled, “What did you do?”

“Research,” Mason replied simply, ignoring the accusing tone in my voice. However, I found nothing simple about his response. If anything, it only led to more questions.

I hammered on, “What kind of research could you have possibly done?”

The Alpha ignored my question and replied, “When I found out who I was dealing with, I extended an invitation to meet.”

Screw coming at it from the side. I demanded harshly, ”Who? Who are we dealing with?”

Mason shook his head. “Part of my agreement was discretion, and I have no intention of going against my word...not with this man.” His expression was hard and cold, leaving no question he intended to keep whatever word he’d committed to. And I couldn’t really fault him for maintaining sworn confidence.

I hadn’t learned anything specific from Alpha Mason, however, if nothing else, it sounded like Aatos had spoken truthfully that all they required was a meeting. And whatever they had said when they spoke with Alpha Mason had convinced him the vampires were not a threat to him. Still, that didn’t mean they weren’t a threat to Alpha and by extension, our pack.

I hadn’t refused Aatos’ request outright. I didn’t want to provoke a confrontation when Ryder and I were outnumbered, but I also hadn’t committed to helping arrange the meeting, only that I would discuss it with Alpha. I had planned on discussing it with him when I returned. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

Langdon coughed, drawing me out of the memory, and bringing me back to the present. I looked up to find all of them still waiting for me to answer Jax’s question. I replied, “Alpha Mason wouldn’t share his reasoning, only that he met with the vampires, and whatever they told him, convinced him.”

“What the fuck?” Jax scowled again, his frustration evident on his face.

Langdon’s expression was equally grim. “Okay, let’s circle back around to Brinley. I think we need an exit strategy in place for her. If something goes wrong, she can run. My mother will take her in.”

“That won’t work,” Brinley whispered next to me.

I shook my head to Langdon, agreeing with her. “If Alpha knows she has run, he will turn her rogue, and the minute she passes our pack border, any and every Wolf she comes along will try to take her out.” A hard shiver went through Brinley. I tightened my hold on her, rubbing her arm with my hand.

“Shit...that just leaves the humans. Do you have any contacts...someone that would be willing to take her in?” Langdon asked.

I thought about it for a moment. “No, but even if I did, no human would be strong enough to defend against a Wolf hell-bent on killing her. There are too many wolves out and about, even in the cities. Brinley would only have to accidentally stumble upon one for her life to be too easily compromised.”

I was shocked when Ryder spoke softly, “Maybe we should look for an ally elsewhere.”

I met his eye. I knew where he was going, but waited for him to continue. I wanted to hear what he had to say because I was pretty shocked he felt confident enough to even suggest it.

We hadn’t discussed the details, but I knew from the scents in the room, that he and Aatos had experienced some form of intimacy. I couldn’t say I understood what was happening between them, but I had to trust Ryder when he told me Aatos hadn’t hurt him, which meant whatever they had done, had been consensual and sufficient to get them both off.

“What do you mean?” Langdon pressed.

Ryder strengthened his gaze and straightened his spine. His voice didn’t waver, “The vampires—they have the strength required to protect her.”

Brinley gasped.

Langdon turned three shades of red. ”They killed three of your pack members, for fuck sake! How could you even suggest she would be safe with them? No! There has to be another way.”

Shit. How was I going to explain? I began again carefully, “We have intel to suggest the facts—as they were presented to us—may not have been accurate.”

Langdon’s head swiveled to me, his eyes narrowed. He knew there was more I wasn’t telling them. His fist came down on the table next to him, the wood creaking in response, but it didn’t break. “Stop the bullshit! If you know something, now isn’t the time to keep it a secret.”

The problem was it wasn’t my secret to tell. I hadn’t told anyone, including Brinley, what happened between Ryder and Aatos.

Ryder’s expression pulled tight. He understood I was protecting him. At the same time, he also recognized the need for our small group of confidants to have the truth if we were going to defend Brinley as a unit.

Still, I wouldn’t take his choice away. I wouldn’t strip him of the protection anonymity provided. I sent him my thoughts through the mindlink. If it helps, I think you can trust them...but the call is yours.

Ryder remained quiet.

I decided to explain what I could without involving him and replied, “We met with the vampires.”

“You did what?!” Brinley gaped at me, her fingers digging into my arm. Much more and she was going to pierce the skin with her claws.

Jax’s mouth dropped open as he stared. Langdon was on his feet and growled, “And you didn’t think to start off with that information?! What the fuck are you hiding?”

“Langdon,” Amber chastised softly, standing to meet him in the middle of the room. She pulled on his arm, tugging him back to his chair. “I’m sure he’s not hiding anything. Let’s just give him a minute to explain. Hell, he just woke up. There hasn’t been time to have this conversation until right now.”

But Langdon was more right than he knew. I was hiding something. However, explaining the events that occurred between us and the vampires came too close to exposing Aatos’ interest in Ryder, and possibly Ryder’s interest in him.

Langdon returned to his chair reluctantly, but it was clear his suspicions hadn’t lessened in the least. I held his gaze and began again, “They want me to facilitate a meeting between them and Alpha. They’re looking for information, but he wouldn’t say what nor would he say who he worked for. I got the distinct impression that Alpha Mason knows, but part of his agreement was his silence on that matter.”

Langdon looked from me to Brinley and back again. He exhaled and demanded, “And what makes you believe they are trustworthy to protect her life?”

“This is not our first interaction with Aatos,” I explained.

Ryder’s heartbeat increased when I said Aatos’ name. Jax turned to look at him, his head tilting to the side as he studied Ryder intently.

Shit, Jax was intuitive and clever. I wondered how close he was to guessing what happened, although I didn’t know if any of them could suspect this truth. It was so far out of the realm of what we considered normal. It was absolutely unheard of for a wolf/vampire pairing to exist, not to mention two males, at least in our part of the world. Aatos hadn’t seemed fazed by it at all.

I continued, “He said they were attacked away from the pack borders and defended themselves. His story rang with truth. It was exactly something my father would do. And so far, Aatos hasn’t seemed intent on hurting us. Instead, he just wanted to talk, and when we were done, we walked away.”

"Still...” Jax muttered. “There has to be more. You wouldn’t even entertain this risk unless there was more.” His gaze flitted between Ryder and me. His voice softened, “What is it?”

I was out of information I could provide and remained silent. Brinley tugged on my arm. I looked down at her. Her eyes were wide with anxiety. “You can’t really be considering the vampires as protection for me?”

“It’s the last thing I want.” My face twisted in agony because the only reality that would force her to need them would be if I failed to protect her and died in the process. I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “But it might be the most viable option to keep you safe.”

I looked back at Langdon and tried to make him understand the reality. “It isn’t ideal, but if everything went south, you would be one of the ones trying to kill her. You would stop at nothing to slit her throat. How much worse could the vampires be?”

A muscle in Langdon’s jaw twitched.

Jax refocused on Ryder. His words were soft and soothing, ”You suggested the vampires, not your brother. Why?”

Damn, I hadn’t realized Jax was that intuitive. Ryder looked up and met his gaze. I could see his resolve faltering. No one spoke while they stared at each other. Whatever Jax saw in Ryder’s eyes, confirmed his suspicions. Voice even calmer and supportive, he murmured, “No judgment, man...”

It was a promise that Ryder could say whatever he needed to without repercussion. I held my breath. After a long moment, Ryder still didn’t speak. Instead, he reached for the hem of his T-shirt and pulled it over his head. Jax’s his eyes zeroed in on the mark at the base of his neck, and then his gaze snapped back to Ryder, trying to understand. “You have a mate?”

I had no idea how Ryder would answer that question. I didn’t know if he even considered Aatos as a potential mate. I didn’t think so. But as Ryder stared hard at Jax, it was obvious the mark meant something to him.

“Aatos?” Jax breathed.

Ryder nodded, his jaw clenched shut, still refusing to speak.

Brinley inhaled sharply next to me.

My heart went out to him to see the struggle in his eyes. But I didn’t interfere. This was the first time he was willing to open up to someone other than me. It felt like an important step for him to take, one I didn’t want to interrupt.

There was none of Jax’s usual tease to his voice, only unfiltered sincerity as he asked quietly, “Are you okay?”

Ryder nodded slowly, the tension in his mouth relaxing as he replied wryly, “It’s complicated.”

“I can imagine,” Jax smiled and in true Jax style, rambled on, “Well not exactly, I haven’t met my significant other yet. But I definitely want that morning wake-up call thing that Brinley does. See if you can swing that with your man.”

Brinley muttered under her breath, “No, he did not.”

There was a faint blush on Ryder’s cheeks, but I was floored when his expression turned smug, and he replied, “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

“Fuck!” Jax muttered with wide eyes. “You’ve definitely been holding out on us. When we’re done with all of this Alpha bullshit nonsense, I say we get a drink, and you can share details.”

“Jax!” Amber interrupted, chastising him, “You’re worse than any girl I know. Stop hounding that boy for details on his sex life.”

Ryder’s cheeks flushed even redder.

Jax pouted like someone just kicked his puppy.

“Okay, this changes things.” Langdon turned back to me. “But I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.” He hesitated, his gaze flickering back to Ryder. “Not the mate part, but the vampire part. You really feel like you can trust him for something like this?”

Ryder’s features shifted back to complete seriousness. He contemplated a moment before answering, “I don’t know...I can’t say completely. I don’t want it to come to that, but I’m afraid if she has to run, they might be her most viable option.”

“Have you already discussed it with them?” Langdon asked.

“No,” I answered. ”Brinley never came up in our conversation.” I still wasn’t sold on the idea either, but I had to admit we had scarce few options. A plan had been forming in my mind while I listened to their interaction. “I think we can hide the mating and my accelerated healing at least for a day or two until we can secure Brinley’s exit strategy. Ryder and I will reach out to Aatos. Somehow, I’m going to have to negotiate his meeting with Alpha, but if I can manage it, maybe he will be open to helping us in return.”

Langdon tilted his head. “How exactly are you going to explain that without telling him your intention of killing the Alpha?”

I gritted my teeth, “I don’t think I can explain without the truth. I guess we’ll see what Aatos’ true intentions are when I broach the subject with him.”

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