Chapter 2: Charlotte
“Hi baby,” I said as Charlotte tossed her backpack in the back seat and practically dove into the front seat. “How was school?”
“Sucked,” she said. “Heather and her minions were at it again. Can’t I just beat the shit out of her?”
I sighed, the rape trial last year had been difficult for her. Even though she was a minor at fourteen when she had been attacked by a man I foolishly trusted, he wasn’t caught for another thirty months and then there was the trial. She had to testify, and the defense lawyer tried to portray her as a willing participant, going as far as saying she asked him to do it. Her name had been leaked. High school being what it was, some other girls had teased her mercilessly. “Beating her up won’t help, Charlotte.”
She cracked her knuckles, confident in her ability since she had been in taekwondo classes the last few years. “It may not help her, but I’d feel better.” She took my hand as I held it out. “How are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine, honey. I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the hotel, and Gunny, well he took care of the problem.” I sighed as I thought back to waking up and finding him there; I didn’t press him about what he had done with the two men, I didn’t want to know. I just knew I was safe. That was one thing I had come to admire about werewolves, they had their own justice system, it was quick and low on recidivism.
“I can see how much he loves you, Mom.”
I smiled. “He does, doesn’t he?”
“And God knows I can hear how much he loves you.” My jaw fell as I looked at her briefly, she was smirking. “I like him too. It’s about time you were happy, Mom.”
“What about you? Aren’t you nervous about moving if I go through with this?”
She snorted. “You mean to get away from this school, this weather and this crime and go to a luxury house on fifty acres with THAT pool?” Gunny must have shown her some pictures this morning, that wasn’t a normal pool, it was something like a resort would have. “We talked this morning, he promised me that if we didn’t like it he would get us our own place. He’s loaded, apparently.”
I squeezed her hand, not wanting her to look at it that way. “His Pack has money, he said he gets his Marine retirement and a stipend for being a Pack beta. They do things a little differently there, we’ll get to see how it works and talk to them. Gunny promised me he wouldn’t pressure me into a decision until I’m comfortable.”
We were almost home, so I held off continuing until we were in the house. We were going to visit for a long weekend, Charlotte had her homework in her backpack so she could do it and email it to her teachers while we were gone. I had barely set my purse down when I was grabbed and lifted in the air. “GUNNY! Put me down!”
He let me slide down his chest, letting go so I could spin around and pull him into a deep kiss. “I missed you,” he whispered as his big hand squeezed my butt. Charlotte had already run up the stairs to her room. I wrapped my arms around his neck as he pulled me into his arousal.
I moaned into his mouth. “We don’t have time, we have to get packed.”
“The plane will wait,” he said as he kissed my neck. I shivered as he started to nip the place he told me his mark would go when I was ready.
“I hate being late to anything,” I said. “You’ll just have to keep it in your pants for a while longer.” I pushed off him and walked up the stairs, he was following me like a puppy. I pulled down a bag from the closet and went to my closet. “Weather this weekend?”
“Near ninety during the day, nights are in the sixties. Most of the weekend will be at the Pack House, but bring something nice in case we go out to dinner.”
“Sure, you can bring one,” he chuckled. “I just hope you two keep an open mind to things. Pack life isn’t the same as what you are used to. It’s like extended family, we all care about each other.”
“That may be the biggest change, I haven’t had a family since Grandma died and Charlotte only had us.” I smacked his hand as he started poking through my lingerie drawer, it was bad enough he’d found my bedside drawer earlier in the week. “You said there are kids her age?”
“Jane Spencer is her age, plus her brother is a few years older.” he said. “Most of the kids in the Pack are war orphans or were born while the Pack was in hiding, so under 12 there are a bunch. We were one of the few Packs to actually gain members during the war.”
“That, and our Alpha is highly fertile.” He told me the story as I packed, I couldn’t wait to meet Ella again, outside our professional interaction.
He took my bag down to his car, Charlotte was already waiting at the door. I locked up and we loaded into his rental. “So tell me again why the private jet?”
“I think Ella wants to make sure you get as much time with our Pack as possible. Don’t worry about it, we have the company on retainer and we have to make a certain number of flights a month to make it worth it. Plus, they took the RV back home.”
We talked about the Pack, the war and his life during the drive to the airport. He parked next to the small jet, pulling our bags out, before tossing the car keys to an attendant. The pilot helped us to our seats as the copilot stowed the bags. A few minutes later, we were seated in the comfortable leather chairs as the plane taxied out.
We were chasing the sun as we headed west. “I could get used to this,” Charlotte said as she dug into the shrimp linguini dish that was our in-flight meal. My serving was three times theirs, and the champagne was excellent. “How did your pack make its money?”
“That’s not a polite question to ask, Charlotte,” I whispered.
“It’s all right, she should get all her questions answered.” He got out a piece of paper, and told the story of the Belden Pack from before the war. “They got out of the land and mineral rights business at the right time, and Tom Harris invested wisely,” he said. “Plus, during the war the Pack was active in the cyberwar and used that to play the futures market. That alone bankrolled much of our resistance.” I looked away during this, I had been trying to shut that down without success in a previous job, and now with the peace treaty and amnesty agreement there was nothing the FBI could do. “We also received reparations after the war for the lands, the loss of Ella’s old house, and the confiscation of our lands. Our Pack also has the only survivors of the Grand Forks, Alexandria and Rochester Packs, so we got the compensation for them as well. Ella is also trying to get a settlement from the government for her confinement.” He looked at her. “We’re the second richest Pack in the country right now, but we don’t measure our strength in money. We just don’t have to worry about it.”
“Why Santa Fe?”
“It was open, and we got permission to stay there from Ella’s cousin while our island is uninhabitable.” This led to him showing photos of the island and telling the story of the unexploded ordnance. “I can’t wait to get back there. My cat loves the jungle, and I love the beaches.”
“It looks beautiful,” I said.
“It is. They’ve filmed episodes of Survivor there, other movies. Most of the island is untouched, and we plan to keep it that way.” I snuggled into his arm, the hum of the engines lulling me to close my eyes. I was tottering on the edge of nod as I heard Gunny talking to Charlotte.
“So how does this work with you and Mom? Do you become my Dad?”
There was a pause. “I love your Mom with everything I am. You are important to her, so you are important to me. Just like I will cherish and protect her, I will be there for you too.”
“I don’t need a Dad.”
“And I’ve never been one.” He moved a little under me. “Look, in my life I’ve been in lots of situations I wasn’t trained for and didn’t expect. What I learned was that you have to give it your best and follow your instincts, and trust that things will turn out. All I’m asking is for you to keep an open mind and try to experience everything that is part of this weekend. That way, any decisions you and your Mom make are based in what you know, not what you fear.”
“Mom used to hunt your people down. I don’t know much about you, other than you are dangerous.”
“Charlotte, I spent twenty years in the Marines, I was a Scout Sniper, an instructor, I’ve been on dozens of missions behind enemy lines. I didn’t need a panther to be dangerous.”
“Like with those men that were going to rape Mom?”
“Those weren’t MEN, far from it. In our Pack, rape is punishable by death. Rapists are cowards, they see something and try to take it, they are the lowest of the low. Nobody deserves that, much less your mother. And officially, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m glad you did that, but WHY did you do that?”
“You Mom may not have accepted me yet, but my panther knew she was mine. She’s already Pack in my head, so I watched out for her and when she was in danger I eliminated it.”
There was a pause as he played with his phone. “Did you ever see Linda Remington’s documentaries?” She must have said no. “She spent a lot of time right after the war with the Johnson Pack, their Alphas are cousin to my Alpha and are close allies. You might find it enlightening.” I heard the video start and he leaned forward to hand it to her. I was asleep by the time he settled back in, my head on his shoulder and his hand on my leg.
“Baby, wake up, we’re landing.” I felt him shake me as I woke instantly, looking around as I remembered where I was. Charlotte still had his phone, but it was on pause as she looked out the window at the landscape passing by. I looked out at the desert in the setting sun, it was beautiful.
“How long did I sleep?”
“About an hour. Here.” He handed me a bottled water and a napkin. “We will be on the ground in ten minutes. A car will meet us there, then it’s a twenty-minute drive to the Pack House.”
“You’ll stop and get us coffee, though.” It didn’t sound like a request as it left my mouth.
“Of course.” We turned down the cabin lights and watched the ground approach. My stomach had butterflies, my whole life would hinge on these next few days. I just wanted to be happy, I wanted Charlotte to be happy.
I wanted a home.