Chapter 22 - Stone (Part 2)
Stone could empathize with Aubree’s parents. They had a few years to get to know Dan and probably really liked him. If things were different, chances were that Stone would have liked him too.
The abrupt termination of their engagement must have come as a shock to them, and Aubree’s emotionally distressed state afterward didn’t make it any easier for her to communicate with them about it. If anything, they should have been more supportive of her decision and listened to her side of the story. Her mother’s actions and attitude, however, rubbed him the wrong way. He couldn’t imagine a mother being as cold to her daughter as Aubree’s had been.
Her mother would release her hold eventually. She’d have to if she wanted to maintain a relationship with her daughter.
Aubree’s stomach growled as he held her, signaling him to release her and let her eat her toast.
As she began to eat, Gwen poked into his head.
[Lance wants to call his folks and talk privately with them. Is it okay if he uses your office?]
He heard the faint pitter-patter of Lance’s footsteps across the second-floor hallway and up the stairs to his office. The door closed before Lance’s muffled whispers rumbled faintly in the enclosed space.
[His parents are really stressing him out,] she said. [They didn’t seem this demanding when we visited them thirty years ago.]
Sighing, he caught Aubree’s attention and she raised a questioning brow.
Tapping his temple, he invited her into his head to eavesdrop as she munched away on her toast.
[Indeed. They’ve doubled down on him since finding out about your bond,] he said. [Dom confided in me when we were there that their parents had always been more lenient with Lance, even when he was a pup. He matured quickly, but they didn’t challenge him mentally or physically.]
[Yeah, I gathered that. He told me that no one in his pack expected anything from him, and now he’s not sure how to handle the demands his parents are thrusting onto him. He wants to please them, but at the same time, he feels like he’ll never match up to their expectations.]
The frown that tugged on Aubree’s face made him pull her against his chest and hold her. She’d become attached to the pup, and he didn’t like seeing or feeling her unhappiness. He rubbed small circles into her back as he pressed his nose to her head and inhaled her wonderful scent.
[I’m sure he’ll be fine once he gets accustomed to it. If I can become Alpha, he can too.]
Comforting emotions seeped into him from Aubree and he couldn’t help but close his eyes and simply enjoy the moment.
A disgrace like him becoming Alpha of a pack? He smirked to himself. His family wouldn’t have let him give up on himself, even if he tried. For that, he was eternally grateful and owed them the biggest debt of his life.
A loud groan and a sharp, ”Fine!" interrupted their train of thought.
[Uh oh. That doesn’t sound good.] Gwen pulled out of his head as she left her room and strode down the hallway to the stairs.
Sighing, Stone pulled away from Aubree to massage his face.
Was it too much for that male to bend even a little? All they were asking for was a little more time.
“Come,” he urged Aubree as he took her hand and marched to the stairs. “We’re going to have to settle this ourselves.”
He heard Gwen reach his office and ask Lance what was going on as they climbed the stairs.
“They won’t...” he heard Lance tell Gwen as they reached the second floor. Anger laced his voice as he took a deep breath in an effort to calm himself. “They won’t budge. My father has ordered my return, and insists you come with me.”
A growl crept up Stone’s throat and he clenched his fists until he felt pain shoot up his arm.
His eyes flew open and he dropped Aubree’s hand and stopped in his tracks halfway between the second and third floor. He turned to her and cupped her cheeks in his palms. [Sorry, Love. I’m sorry.]
She scowled before kissing him on the nose. [It’s okay. It’s healing now.]
He kissed her palm and knuckles before continuing their ascent.
“Then, I’ll come,” Gwen said.
“But you’re not well enough to travel,” Lance whispered as they reached the top step.
Stone signaled Aubree to stop and she did.
A thin stream of light seeped out of the ajar door to his office. Gray, early morning light permeated the hallway from the window at the end.
He could hear their heartbeats quicken before the door closed with a soft click—a signal for privacy.
“I’ll manage,” she replied.
Stone wanted to go in there and pull Gwen away from all this, but he knew this was between them. It was her fight. Her decision.
He had to step back.
Lowering himself to the floor, he planted himself on the top step of the staircase and leaned his head against the wooden banister. He closed his eyes as he set his jaw and tried to keep himself calm with each deep breath he inhaled and exhaled.
Aubree joined him and he slipped his arm around her as she leaned into his side.
“I can’t do this... I can’t do this to you. To your pack. Your family.”
The strain in Lance’s voice looped around Stone’s heart and tugged.
“They need you, Gwen. Aubree’s not trained. Everyone knows that. Even everyone in my pack knows that. What would that mean for you? For your pack?”
He paused, and the only answer he got was the thundering of Gwen’s heart.
“They need you more than I do. Than my pack does, for that matter. I can’t force you to leave them. What if those vampires come back? How would your pack fare without you?”
“We have our connections... our alliances...”
“And I’m sure they’ll all come together as best as they can,” he said gently, “but until Aubree is trained, your pack is weak with only four trained members. Her life will be in danger. They won’t be able to manage without you. Honestly, I don’t even know how you guys are managing as it is, never mind doing it for a century.”
She whimpered as he continued, his voice softening.
“I admire everyone here. Not only strength-wise, because you are all incredibly strong, but I admire the relationships you all have together. My parents told me about your father before he and Aubree even came to visit us. Told me how shameful he was for what he had done. How inconceivable it was for him to claim that your mother’s soul had been reborn again as a human. How impossible it all was. How I should watch my back around them and keep a close eye on them. How wrong, disgusting, and disturbing...”
He huffed as if his chest hurt. “And then I met them, and got to know them, and I don’t understand. I don’t know what to think or feel. I’ve been told what to think and feel, but my mind and my emotions keep conflicting. I understand why it’s forbidden, but I can’t find myself taking the moral high-ground and denounce them as frauds. It’s real. What they have is real. It’s blessed. How can I denounce everything about them as a hoax when I feel the opposite?”
He took a deep breath. “And how can I take you away from a pack that is still trying to regain its footing with a new Luna? How can I face anyone here or back home knowing that I willfully accepted my father’s orders and took you away? What kind of a future Alpha would I make if I always followed someone else’s orders instead of making my own decisions? What if Dom finds his mate and you and I come back here to become Alpha and Luna of this pack? How could they accept me after everything I put them through?”
Gwen sniffed and it made Stone’s heart ache. “Lance?”
“I can’t live with myself if I force you to abandon your pack,” he whispered. “I don’t know if I can even look at you. It’s shameful. I’m shameful. I’m not worthy to have you as my mate.”
“Don’t say that, please.”
The ache in Gwen’s voice was more than Stone could bear. He held Aubree to himself and buried his nose in her hair.
“I am. I’m young and inexperienced, and I know it. The timing is wrong. Everything is being rushed and it’s shameful. I hate myself and what I’m being forced to do. And I can’t... I can’t accept it.”
Gwen was crying and sniffled softly.
“I’m sorry, Gwen,” Lance whispered. “But I can’t allow this to happen. I want you by my side, but I want you to stay here and continue to take care of your pack while I attend my training. You will make me proud as the mate and Luna I deserve to have when I am worthy of having you.”
Gwen’s voice was so faint, it was but a breathy whisper that he almost didn’t catch. “But you are worthy...”
“Someday, I will be. But not today.”
Aubree’s attempt to say “Zuckerschnecke” (sugar snail) wound up being “sugar-fancier/yummier” the first time and then added “sludge” after it. Zuckerschlicker = Sugar-sludge! Now that’s yummy!
Also, a reader pointed out that there's a type of pastry called "Zuckerschnecke" that looks like a cinnamon bun, thus resembling a snail, and that might be where the term of endearment originated from.