COAL

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Diversionary Tactics

Brinley

The sun had gone down several hours ago, signaling the end of one of the most stressful days of my life.

Shortly after Coal and I mated, the group decided to seek assistance from the vampires, and Langdon and I returned to the woods. My Wolf whined and fussed at having to leave her mate, but she understood our imminent danger. Every minute spent with Coal was a potential for disaster if Alpha found out. So, as much as we hated to be apart, it was safer to wait in the cave.

Although, the waiting was excruciating.

Coal and Ryder hadn’t been able to leave until Alpha checked in on Coal and debrief him at five o’clock that afternoon. Their meeting had gone surprisingly smoothly. Langdon relayed the details to me courtesy of his mindlink with Amber.

Lying in bed, carefully covered with a blanket to hide his completely healed body, Coal had relayed the events of his trip to Alpha Mason. Coal left out their interaction with the vampires, preferring not to bring up the subject with Alpha until he spoke with Aatos regarding my exit plan.

It was ten o’clock at night now. Given the three-hour drive each way to the vampire’s hotel, Coal and Ryder probably wouldn’t be home for at least another hour or so.

Langdon and I had left the cave and were now traveling in wolf form, hypersensitive noses pointed in the air, nostrils flaring. We drank in the scents floating on the wind, woodsy earth and pine, a crisp northeastern breeze wafting down from a nearby mountain, and the warm blood of small creatures, scurrying to hide from the predators they sensed close by.

We were hunting. Langdon hadn’t said what he hoped we’d catch. It was winter, so not as much big game roamed the familiar woods, just foxes and rabbits for the most part, and the occasional squirrel, although, they were nearly just a mouthful, hardly worth the effort but entertaining when our Wolves needed a distraction.

Which, I suspected, was precisely the reason Langdon had insisted we scout the furry animals. Our expedition was a diversion, a lure to keep my attention away from much more critical matters, small details, like my life being in imminent danger.

However, as well-meaning as they were, Langdon’s diversionary tactics weren’t particularly successful. My brain still churned over and over, the events of the last twenty-four hours tumbling through my mind like wet clothes in a dryer.

Spinning

Turning

So much had happened, so much revealed. The list was long:

I now had a face to go with the horror of the man who raped me.

The terrible images I couldn’t get out of my head of Coal’s ravaged body.

The delicious and shocking pleasure when Coal and I became one!

Fear of the unknown. How with the vampires respond to Coal’s request?

When Coal called Aatos earlier, the vampire had insisted they meet in person to discuss the matter...with the condition that Ryder accompanied Coal, of course.

Coal’s mouth had tightened into a hard line, his displeasure at subjecting Ryder to the close proximity of the vampire, evident. But Ryder wordlessly nodded his acceptance of the arrangement.

However, even though the vampires were willing to talk, and Ryder was on board to go with him, Coal still hadn’t left easily.

Our bond remained incomplete. More couplings were required which meant I was still vulnerable. It wouldn’t be easy for another male to destroy Coal’s claim on me, but it could be done if the Wolf were powerful enough and took me by force.

Coal’s Wolf knew this as well, and his Alpha possessive side was in high gear, growling to finish every step of mating before I left his sight. But we couldn’t risk spending any more time together than we already had. And when our bond was final, our scents would mingle, making it impossible to deny I belonged to him.

So after much convincing and some heavy-handed shoving, Jax and Amber were finally able to get Coal out the door.

A shiver ran down my spine. Vampires were arch enemies of wolves and yet, as mind-boggling as it was, I might be running to them for safety. The irony was painful to wrap my brain around.

But if Alpha cut my tie to the pack, turning me rogue, I would have no choice. Every Wolf that crossed my path, regardless of who they were, friend or foe, would feel compelled to destroy me.

Another cold shudder ran down my spine.

Up ahead, Langdon’s Wolf snorted to get my attention.

My Wolf’s head popped up, snout covered in dirt and leaves. I realized she had just been burrowing aimlessly in the large crevice under a fallen log, pawing at the damp earth, going through the motion of shoving her nose into the small hole to coax out hidden prey, but not really focusing on it. From the absence of scent, I wondered if there was any prey there at all. Her lack of concentration and disinterest with the task at hand was as severe as mine.

If it were possible, I swear Langdon’s Wolf rolled his eyes at her disheveled and confused expression. My Wolf shook her head, forest debris flying off her face, and stuck her nose in the air in an attempt to regain a semblance of dignity.

Another snort came from Langdon’s wolf, unimpressed with her haughty display. He knew he’d caught her acting ridiculous.

However, as we stared at each other, the wind shifted, and his Wolf’s expression abruptly changed. Gone was his amusement. In its place, a snarl curled his upper lip, revealing razor-sharp canines.

Head snapping in the direction of packhouse, the regal animal stood perfectly still, body rigid, not a muscle moving, listening to one of his pack mates. I was sure of it.

His Wolf’s aggressive reaction caused butterflies to explode in my stomach. Not the sweet and pretty kind of winged insects. No. These butterflies were dark and ominous, waiting for bad news to be revealed.

Abruptly, Langdon shifted and stood before me in all of his naked glory, the luminescent rays of the moon reflecting off of his smooth skin. His sudden shift caused my anxiety to ratchet up another notch, making my shift a little less smooth than normal, but it had to be done. It was clear we needed to talk.

“Alpha wants to see you now.” Langdon’s words came out curt and hard, his amber eyes flashing. His hands were clenched into tight fists and the muscles in his chest and arms flexed with strain.

“Now?” I breathed. A wave of nausea washed over me. I automatically grasped onto a nearby low-hanging tree branch to steady myself. “I thought we had more time. Coal plans to challenge him soon after he returns. I was hoping he’d defeat him before I was forced to speak with Alpha again.”

“So was I.” Langdon gritted. “But Daniel just mindlinked to pass on the Alpha’s orders.”

I raised an eyebrow.

Langdon understood my confusion and explained, “Daniel stuck close to the packhouse to monitor Alpha’s movements.”

My hand flew to my neck, my fingers covering Coal’s mark. “But I can’t see him! He’ll know!”

Langdon ran a hand through his dark hair, his gaze intent, swirling with concentration to come up with a solution. He blew out a breath. “We can hide your mark. Just select a shirt with a collar. You already washed Coal’s scent off of your skin in the stream earlier, there’s no trace of it left. And the bond is still in its early stages, so your core scents haven’t combined yet. The bond is well-established, but it’s not complete until...” he trailed off.

I blushed. Langdon didn’t need to explain further. The bond wasn’t sealed until Coal’s Wolf claimed me. My Wolf would also claim Coal, as well as our Wolves claim each other. It was a lengthy—and intensely pleasurable—process.

When finished, our bond would be unbreakable and our scents—our truest and pure essences—would mix forever. Not on our skin, but deeper than that, something neither of us could wash away, a physical change in both of our bodies, a clear sign to let every other Wolf know we were taken and by whom.

Langdon stared at me silently.

I steeled myself. I could do this, particularly since I didn’t have the choice. Alpha wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Okay. I have some clothes Darcie gave me, stored in the cave for emergencies. I think one of those shirts will work.”

A tiny amount of relief showed on Langdon’s face. “Let’s go.”

Shifting back to Wolf, we flew through the forest to the cave. Once there, I gathered a T-shirt and pair of pants. My gaze landed on my bear and the hidden ring inside. Abruptly, the compulsion to wear the ring hit me, hard, the force shockingly strong.

I shook my head, trying to stave off my desire. There was no way I could wear that ring when visiting Alpha! Still, the impulse nagged at me, so much so, I found I couldn’t leave the cave until at least grasping the ring out of the bear and depositing it into the pocket of my pants. I could have it with me and Alpha would never know. Shifting to fur, I gathered the outfit in my teeth and met Langdon outside the cave.

We ran until we were close to the packhouse but far enough away for me to change in the woods without being seen. Langdon didn’t even bother to turn around while I shifted and got dressed. He was too busy plotting our next move. When I finished, I glanced up at him. His neck was corded tight, lips pulled into a thin line. He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I tried to give him a reassuring smile which probably came out looking more like a tortured grimace. “Wish me luck.”

His eyes flashed darker, back and forth to his Wolf. He didn’t say anything, so I turned to go.

I only took one step before his hand caught my elbow, stopping my motion. His voice was gruff. “Wait...you need my scent.”

I turned back to face him, my mouth slack in confusion. “What?”

His brow pulled together in concentration, still thinking through whatever plan was percolating in his head. I waited. He exhaled, “Alpha knows we spent the night together. It would make sense for my scent to be on you and it will help keep him off-track.”

“Oh,” I breathed. I couldn’t disagree with Langdon’s logic but wasn’t exactly sure what he had in mind. “Okay, um...how do you want to do this?”

Langdon took a measured step forward, eliminating the space between us. My heart beat faster seeing the look of intent in his eyes.

My Wolf growled her displeasure. He wasn’t her mate. I told her to shush. Having Langdon’s scent could help keep both Coal and us alive. She stayed stiff-legged, hair bristled and sticking straight up, but stopped growling.

Langdon’s penetrating gaze slowly went down my body. He shook his head and muttered under his breath, “I must be crazy. Fuck. We’re going to have to get my scent off of you before Coal returns, or I’m a dead man.”

I remained silent and didn’t dare follow his look down. Even though I was fully dressed, he was still completely naked. His head came back up. He caught my gaze, his voice low and soothing, “I’m going to kiss you and hold you tightly,” he explained softly, preparing me for his next move, and then gave me a wry look. “Don’t let your Wolf attack me.”

My throat went dry. Langdon was my friend. I didn’t see him as anything other than that, which made this whole experience beyond awkward, but he was right, it needed to be done. I just nodded my understanding, still too stunned that we were actually doing this, to say anything. Langdon grasped my hip with one hand while his other curled around the back of my neck, holding my head in place.

He brought his head slowly down. Tension ran through my body.

It didn’t feel right.

His look softened, and he whispered, “I know this is hard for you, particularly at this stage of bonding when all you want is your mate. Just try to relax...it will only take a minute.”

I focused on relaxing my shoulders and back. Langdon felt the difference and murmured, “That’s it...good girl,” as he closed the distance between our mouths.

A jolt of unfamiliarity went through my body when his lips pressed to mine. But his kiss was soft and tender, slowly coaxing a response from me as they moved against mine. Finally, I relaxed enough to return his kiss. There were no feelings behind it, just the small physical pleasure of the touch, and truthfully, I wouldn’t have been able to even do that if I didn’t trust him so much.

However, without warning, Langdon’s hold tightened. He pulled my body forward against his, snaking his arm around my back to keep me in place.

“Oh!” I gasped loudly, my eyes flying open when I felt his hard arousal press against my belly.

Langdon pulled back slightly, an aroused glint in his eyes. “Sorry, love, it’s a male thing...impossible to contain when I’m kissing a beautiful girl...naked. I promise I won’t try anything other than to rub you against me.”

My eyes widened, and a choking noise slipped from my throat.

Langdon grinned and quickly clarified, “No, not like that. When I say ’rub you against me,’ I’m not referring to rubbing you against my cock. I mean my full body...chest, neck, arms and even my legs.” His smirk turned wolfish. “My cock just happens to be in the way.”

My face flooded with embarrassment, my cheeks burning.

“So innocent...” he chuckled low as he brought his head down and this time, his lips trailed along my neck on the opposite side of my mating mark.

I instinctively knew he would never go anywhere near Coal’s mark, not even for the benign purpose of trying to fool Alpha. That spot was sacred to Wolves and extremely sensitive.

Another quick moment went by as Langdon gently rocked my entire front against him, transferring his scent to my exposed skin and clothing. And then, just as quickly as he began, he stopped, released his hold and stepped back.

I stood perfectly still, waiting for my heartbeat to return to normal. My Wolf was again hissing her displeasure and disgust at the circumstances. I ignored her. We had much more pressing matters at the moment—like staying alive.

And I also hoped I could keep Coal calm when I told him about it later. I’d make sure to have Langdon’s scent washed off of my body before that conversation, of course, but I had no intention of keeping something like a kiss with another male, a secret from him. Secrets like that had a way of doing a lot of damage when not shared up front.

Coal wouldn’t like it, especially now when our bond was incomplete—on second thought, maybe I should wait until after we had finished bonding—but I was confident he would understand the necessity of it. The stakes were high. We were all playing a very dangerous game.

Langdon interrupted my thoughts. “I’m going to get showered and dressed, and then check on Jax and Amber. But I’ll be back and waiting for you when you’re done.”

I nodded and turned, making my way out of the protection of the trees, the dark butterflies churning in my belly too much for me to speak.

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