Chapter 35 - Aubree (Part 1)
Stone’s absence began to slowly creep into Aubree’s bones, like a lingering dull ache that wouldn’t ease up nor intensify.
Before they lost mental connection, he told her he loved her and that he would be back as soon as possible.
[Stay strong, Love. Be the Luna I know you are.]
Easy for him to say, she thought as they pulled up to Brooke’s parents’ house and the mental connection was broken. I can’t shift and I’m not trained. A luna seeking asylum instead of being with her pack during a war doesn’t sound like someone strong or worth respecting.
With a sigh, she pushed her self-deprecating thoughts out of her mind and focused on the evening ahead.
Brooke’s family greeted her and her parents the way they always had. It was nice to feel some familiarity after all the revelations and changes she had endured the past few weeks.
They gathered in the backyard, the raised ranch style house with the gray paneling and white trim around the windows, front door and sliding back door hadn’t changed a bit. The back deck connected to an above ground pool with large shade trees all around a big fenced-in yard.
It made sense now. Aubree always wondered why Brooke lived in a gated community, but no one ever spoke of it. She knew Brooke’s parents worked in the “family business,” which she assumed meant breeding Huskies, German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers that they sold in the Chicago Area.
The “Nursery,” as they called it, was more like a kennel and located next to the house where the four female dogs of each breed lived. They currently had two breeding males, one Shepherd and a Golden Retriever, and they had their own personal house at opposite ends of the yard.
Brooke offered a space for Whiskey to stay in the Nursery, but Aubree asked if he could stay with her during the night. She needed something familiar by her side wherever they put her, and so would Whiskey.
As if sensing her unease of the night to come, the dog stayed by her side most of the time. Even while she swam in the pool with Brooke, her younger sister, and Justin when he showed up with his mate and two small kids, Whiskey sat at the edge of the pool and watched them swim and splash around.
It was hard to imagine Justin as a father. It had been years since she last saw him and seeing him with a mate, a toddler, and a five-year-old made her realize how quickly time passed.
His mate was friendly enough, though Aubree didn’t miss the sideways looks she cast when she thought Aubree wasn’t looking. Aubree ignored her, not wanting to cause drama in front of her parents, and held her head high.
They were the beta couple and should be respected, but she would have preferred to receive the same level of respect herself.
If her parents weren’t around, she would have worn a spaghetti-strap sundress to show off her mark. She planned on wearing as many tank tops and spaghetti-straps as she could for the duration of her stay in the pack.
She wasn’t ashamed of her mate and wasn’t going to hide it from them.
They don’t know Stone like you do, she reminded herself as she turned away and watched Brooke’s little sister playing with the five-year-old with water-wings on in the pool.
Crystal had gotten so big from the thin little eleven-year-old she remembered before going to college six years ago. She appeared to be the same height as Aubree with blue-green eyes, rather pale skin compared to everyone else in her family, and long black hair. Aubree didn’t remember her hair being black before, but dark brown like Brooke’s, a trait they both inherited from their mother.
As if picking up on Aubree’s train of thought by watching her gaze, Brooke pulled her away to the far corner of the pool and whispered into her ear.
“Cricket doesn’t have a wolf.”
Cricket because Crystal had always been rather small and hardly ever said a word since she was a kid.
Aubree’s brows knotted. “What do you mean?”
“She’s a werewolf without a wolf. Happens sometimes, but never to a family with a beta bloodline. She has until the day before her nineteenth birthday to shift for the first time, and if she doesn’t, then she never will.”
Swallowing, Aubree wondered what that meant for Crystal. What was a werewolf without a wolf?
She couldn’t remember Crystal’s exact birth date, but she knew it was in the fall before Thanksgiving.
A year and a bit didn’t seem like much time left.
“Do you mind if she stays with you tonight?” Brooke asked, snapping Aubree from her thoughts.
Puzzlement tugged on her. “Yeah, sure. It’s no problem.”
“It’s just...” Brooke sighed as she cast sad eyes on her little sister. “She’s been having more panic attacks over the last couple of years. Stressing out about not shifting before her nineteenth birthday, I guess. She’d feel more comfortable with you than with the other kids who will be placed in shelters tonight.”
Brooke had mentioned Crystal’s panic attacks in the last few years, not that she ever gave any details about what they were like.
Aubree couldn’t remember when Crystal started getting them. She also had no idea what to do if Crystal had one with her. She’d never spent time alone with Crystal, not that she had anything against the girl but the age gap was always prominent and she and Brooke had always gone off to do their own thing.
“Sure, I don’t mind.”
“Thanks,” Brooke said, giving her an appreciative smile. “That will put all our minds at ease a bit.”
Their parents called them to dinner and a mass exodus of the pool began.
Dinner was an assortment of barbecued meats, salads, and garlic bread. Conversations were light during the first half, then Brooke’s mother ventured into tense territory.
“Aubree, Brooke mentioned you have a new boyfriend in the Twin Cities. Tell us about him. It’s a shame he couldn’t make it for dinner.”
Brooke sent her mother a look of warning with a tight jaw.
Not knowing where this was going, Aubree forced a smile as she explained about Stone being a former Marine and now a police officer and got called into work a few hours ago.
“A cop, huh? Sounds like a dangerous line of work,” she replied.
“I think he can handle it,” Aubree’s father jumped in. “Can’t be any harder than being a Marine. Besides, he has Bree to come home to every day. Right, hunny?” He winked.
An impish smile tugged at her lips. Bravo, Dad.
As they finished up their meal, the dogs in the Nursery started barking excitedly. Brooke’s family were all on their feet before the voice even hollered out.
Aubree jumped up at the sound of Jackson’s voice and whirled around to see him opening the gate of the wooden fence.
Panic shot through her as Brooke nudged her with her elbow.
“Relax,” she whispered. “It’s part of the plan.”
“Come on in, Al-Jackson,” Brooke’s father quickly corrected, even though the alpha was already inside the yard, followed by his mate, and closing the gate behind them.
He had a three-year-old boy hanging from his shoulders and giggling as Jackson slung him down and onto the grass. The little boy immediately ran up the wooden steps to the deck to Justin’s five-year-old son and gave him a quick hug before hugging Justin’s two-year-old daughter.
Leanne was holding a box the size of a loaf of bread against her pregnant stomach with a tight-lipped smile on her lips.
Brooke’s father introduced Aubree’s parents to Jackson as Justin’s childhood friend and the community planner, along with his wife Leanne and son.
“We have a draw taking place today for an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Europe for two weeks,” Jackson announced. He held out the ballots. “Everyone over the age of eighteen is free to enter.”
“Wow!” Aubree’s mother was impressed. “All-expenses-paid? Who’s footing the bill for this?”
“Leanne’s marketing firm is forming a partnership with another in Europe and to celebrate, all friends and family of the employees have been invited into the draw,” he said.
Plausible... Although unlikely, Aubree couldn’t help thinking, but given the short notice to plan this, it would have to do.
Brooke’s parents, Justin, his mate, and Brooke all filled out ballots without question, and when the ballots came to Aubree and her parents, her mother and father hesitated.
“Oh, no. It sounds wonderful, but we don’t really know—”
“Don’t worry,” Jackson assured with a friendly smile that could put anyone at ease, “I think we can sneak you in. Besides, it would be rude to not include you now.”
They were still hesitant but filled out the ballots to be polite.
“We probably won’t win anyway,” Aubree told them in an attempt to reassure them.
Her mother sighed. “I’m sure you’re right.”
Once everyone put their ballots into Leanne’s box, they exchanged a few more words before leaving to “collect more” from the neighbors.
More lies on top of lies. An endless cycle.
Guilt from all the lies pressed down on Aubree as she tried to enjoy the rest of the evening with her family and friends, but as the sky darkened and her mother refused to drink more than a single glass of wine, she began to grow anxious.