My heart hammered in my chest, threatening to crack open my ribs. After it had sunk to my toes, the erratic beat made it nearly impossible to catch my breath.
Zach…he didn’t sound right. Even through the mindlink I could feel his sadness, his despair.
Since I had only just gotten home a little over an hour ago after being gone for most of the day, I decided I would have to sneak out my window. My mother and father were certain to be keeping an eye out for me, especially Dad. He was none too pleased when I walked into the house earlier with Mom in tow, and he looked about ready to whoop some alpha ass. The thin, unsmiling line of his mouth told me that my mother had blabbed about what happened, and he was looking pretty vicious for someone who spent most of his time mending people’s broken bodies. He looked more like an enforcer or warrior than a doctor. I hadn’t been able to bear the look, it was so foreign on my father’s usually kind face, so I had hurried to my room before I fell apart again.
I quietly slid open my window, wincing when it made an almost-audible screech and then looked over to my door. All was silent, and I hoped Mom and Dad had already gone to bed for the night. They usually went to sleep by ten and rose early, but today had been such a shit show, I didn’t know if that would affect their regularly programmed sleep schedule.
As I hung from the overhang of the house, I swung forward a few times before my foot caught the lowest branch of the tree in my backyard. I grabbed it with my ankles and reached out with my right hand, catching the branch so I’d have a better grip before I climbed down to the ground.
I had snuck out this way many times before growing up. After-hours had been some of the best times to see Zach when his father couldn’t interrupt us with some idiotic reason to keep us apart. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
I dropped softly to the ground for the last two feet and moved quickly off toward the trees, making sure to look back every few steps to see that I wasn’t being watched or followed. The lights were off in the house, so I was pretty sure my parents were asleep—or at least already in bed.
It usually took me a good thirty minutes to get to the waterfall that was our secret rendezvous point, and I was tempted to shift to make the length of the journey shorter, but I wasn’t certain if I would meet the overnight patrol and figured if they saw who I was in human form, they wouldn’t immediately think I was some intruder that had slipped past their checkpoints on the perimeters of the border.
I almost wished I had brought my cell phone with me, if only to use the flashlight function, but it had almost been dead by the time I had gotten back home and I had set it to charge on my nightstand overnight. It was just as well. Knowing my luck, it would go off and give me a mini heart attack and I’d fall and break a foot. I made sure to keep my mind open in case Zach tried to contact me through the pack link.
Pack link. It should have been the mate link, but that opportunity was surely almost dead and buried.
Happy birthday to me.
I sighed and trudged onward.
You almost there?
Almost, I shot back at him quickly. Another ten minutes or so.
Good. I’m about twenty minutes out myself. I’ll see you soon.
For the last time? Maybe. If he was to reject me, I didn’t know if I’d be able to stay in the pack, watch him get mated to someone else. An alpha needed an heir, after all.
No. I knew I’d never be able to handle that. If it to rejection, I could always go to my Aunt Jess’ pack and live there. It was in Oregon, so not too far from my parents if they wanted to come visit me. I surely wouldn’t be able to step foot on Arrowhead land again if things went badly tonight.
It was just after 11 PM by the time I could finally hear the waterfall off in the distance. The sound seemed to be harsher to my ears and I wondered if anxiety could induce sharper senses. If it did, I could probably be able to hear crickets a mile off. I was one ball of tension that needed to release with the assurance that everything was going to be just fine.
Eventually, I stood at the cliff’s edge and watched the water as it fell over the cliff on the other side of the ravine. Looking down, my eyes sharpened and I could see the rapid movement of the raging river heading downstream in the direction of the ocean many miles to our west.
For a split second, I was tempting to jump and let the water wash me far away. It was a death sentence if I succumbed to that urge, but for some reason I wanted it to carry me far, far away so I could escape from whatever it was that was about to happen.
I had a bad feeling in my stomach. I knew that whatever Zach said, I wasn’t going to like it.
My whole body stilled. I could hear the trepidation in his voice and wanted to flee. Maybe over the cliff, maybe off in some other direction in the woods. Just run away until I didn’t hear the words he was saying, the one’s I knew I didn’t want to hear come out of his mouth. They were too final, would cut too deep. Tear out my ever-loving soul.
Still, I stood up in place and turned around. Zach’s usually tanned face looked ashen, the deep set of his mouth stern. It was like he was being forced to stand there and go through with this, and of course he was. He’d been given the Alpha Command, and from the looks of it, his father hadn’t relented any.
“I—” He stopped and I could see his throat roll with a hard swallow, like there was a lump there, hard and unforgiving. I felt a similar stone rise in my own throat and felt the need to retch. My stomach was in knots.
This was my birthday, a day I was supposed to be happy to be alive. I should have been marked and mated by now, but instead I was standing at the edge of a cliff and looking at my true mate who looked like he was about to lose himself to tears.
I could concur. I didn’t want to hear his words, but I knew I had to.
“What did your father say?” I asked quietly, just above a whisper. If Zach hadn’t been a shifter, I doubt he would have heard me, and I couldn’t force my voice to be any louder.
“He…he won’t budge,” Zach told me, his eyes averted and vision planted to the ground a few feet in front of me.
He couldn’t look at me and I knew—intrinsically knew—it was all over for us. We were meant to be, but couldn’t happen.
Life sucks and then you die. I now understood what it meant, and I had always been more of a glass-half-full kind of girl before this.
“He says I have to mate with another girl, a female from a neighboring pack. Emerald Pack to the east.”
Tears brimmed quickly and spilled over as I lost all my breath.
“Did…did you speak with this neighboring alpha? Tell him you already had a mate—had me?”
He nodded and I let out a sob. Zach looked like he wanted to reach for me and leaned forward, his hand starting to extend toward me until…
Until he pulled it back.
“I’m so fucking sorry, Luce,” he said. “I have to do this. I have less than an hour and if I don’t, I’ll die. Painfully. No matter what I do, we can’t have each other.”
“I hate your father.”
He gave a sad smile.
“I do too.”
There was silence between us as I felt the pain wash over me. It was only a hint of what I would have to endure, I was certain.
“The pain will kill me,” I told him. He shook his head vehemently in return.
“No, it won’t.” He sounded convinced. I wasn’t. “You’re strong, Lulu. Stronger than anyone I know. Promise me you’ll find happiness, even if it’s somewhere else, somewhere far away. I…I think I can live with that even if I feel right now that I can’t live without you. Promise me.”
His voice sounded urgent. All I could do was shake my head and cry, tears leaking down like they’d never stop coming. My body would wither from lack of water and I’d still be there, head down, body shaking, leaking out every drop of fluid I had in me through my tear ducts.
“I’m sorry,” I said finally after taking a gulp of much-needed air. My throat had constricted to the point it was hard to breathe. “I can’t promise that, Zach. Not now. This… The grief is too new, too painful. I feel like my heart is about to burst.”
He moved forward and I hiccoughed, struggling for oxygen.
This was it.
“You have to. For me.”
I looked up at him in disbelief. My eyes narrowed.
“Do it if you must!” I was suddenly shouting. In rage. In defiance. “Do it and get it over with. I can’t stand here in limbo. Do it and be done!”
His back straightened and he stood frozen. I had never shouted at him before and I think it was a shock. But it was the only way for me to get through it—with anger. No other emotion was at potent as that one was right now, in this moment.
“Fucking do it, Zach!” It was my last desperate plea.
He took a deep breath as his lips trembled.
“I, Zachary Greenwood, future alpha of Arrowhead Pack, reject you, Lucinda Wallace. I negate the true bond—”
I didn’t hear anymore. Pain sliced through me, rocking me backward on my heels. My knees almost gave out with the shock of it and I clutched at my gut before my hand moved up to my heart.
It ached. Everything ached, and I whimpered out a little before lifting my head to him and looked him dead in the eyes.
“Thank you,” I whispered before I let the full pain consume me. My foot stepped backward and I was falling suddenly over the cliff to my certain doom.
I didn’t want another mate, didn’t want to leave my parents. I just wanted to feel no pain, and this was the only way I thought I could achieve it.
I heard a yell, though it wasn’t my own. The whole time my body plummeted toward the water I was silent. As if I’d gone temporarily mute. The pain was still there and it made breathing hard to come by, but I closed my eyes and looked down, the sting of the wind making my cheeks feel like sleet was pelting at me unforgivingly. Holding my breath, I plunged beneath the surface of the cold water and waited for my lungs to give out and liquid to fill me.
But that was the problem with death. Sometimes if didn’t want to come easy, and the body’s first reaction was to survive. Survive at any cost.
Just as I thought my lungs would burst with the need for air, my head popped up above the water and I took a deep, necessary breath. The only thing I could hear was the water, and I rode along with the current, my body hitting hard, jagged rocks every few feet.
I felt ribs crack and a bone in my shoulder become displaced from its socket. There was so much pain that after a while, I didn’t feel anything anymore except for the chill of the river. It was freezing and my teeth chattered—that was when I wasn’t trying to gulp life-saving air into my body to keep it alive.
I wanted to die.
My body fought to live.
At some point I think I passed out and everything went dark.
When I awoke, I heard noises. Footsteps along rocky, crumbling shale, and a voice calling out to someone. I was laid on my stomach and could barely move a muscle, I was so tired. When warm hands touched my skin and turned my head, I smelled the scent of pine needles and opened my eyes slowly.
Soft, soulful brown eyes under a mane of black hair looked down at me. I didn’t know who the man was or even where I was, but only one word came to mind when I saw him.
“Rejected,” I whispered before falling back into the abyss of unconsciousness.