The computer was a piece of shit.
Clara Henderson collapsed back into her computer chair, her weight forcing the wheels back with a squeak, reminding her once against that she needed to oil it. She gripped the armrests, her knuckles white, trying to resist the urge to do violence to the stupid machine. She wondered if anyone would notice if she threw it against the wall. Or in a bathtub with a toaster, although maybe that only worked on people.
The same error code had popped back onto the screen. Just like it had been doing every couple of minutes for the past five hours. No matter what Clara did, she hadn’t been able to fix the problem. Mainly, because she didn’t know why the hell it was happening.
She tried to crack her neck, the stiffness starting to cause a headache at the base of her skull. Her options were fast running out. With each passing hour, it grew more and more likely that Clara was going to have to start from scratch, which meant wiping the entire thing, rewriting the programming and working step-by-step to try and pinpoint where she had gone wrong. Something like that could take hours, if not days. Problem with that situation was that she had already told Zach Thomas–SilverRiver’s alpha, and her alpha–that the system was ready to roll out. She’d even asked him to come check it out, to make sure it was everything he had wanted, and he’d replied that he was going to send Alex.
That hammering sound right there? Her coffin being nailed shut.
Even thinking about SilverRiver’s second-in-command made Clara’s stomach clench, but it was impossible to tell if it was anticipation or just absolute dread. The male was damned intimidating and he knew it. He had just two expressions: impassive or scowling. Clara had been born into SilverRiver but being four years younger than Alex, and a submissive, they hadn’t exactly run in the same circles. In fact, she was pretty sure that Alex hadn’t known she existed until Zach had assigned her to the tech-security team–the team that Alex oversaw, apparently. He hadn’t seemed overly impressed with Zach pulling rank on him to add a submissive to the team, but Clara was willing to concede that just could have been his face. In any case, she went to Zach with all that questions she should probably take to Alex, not liking how unsettled he made her feel, but that hadn’t worked out for her this time. And of course, the program would stuff up just because Alex would be coming to check up on her.
She conveniently ignored the fact she had asked for someone to come check the system, because she hadn’t asked for him.
Clara forced her attention back to the computer screen, rubbing her temple. The ache in her head was growing worse, reminding her–again–of just how long she’d been sitting there. This surveillance system was her first solo project and her chance to really show everyone what she was capable of. Clara had been surprised when she’d been assigned the project, and had to school her expression into something that resembled calm, because this new system was extremely important for the safety of the pack. It was going to be an early warning system that would be able to pick up head signatures, unusual and out of place sounds or movement and it would be virtually undetectable from all current technology that was available. It would be placed around the perimeter boundaries, both inner and outer, which would also allow Zach to lessen the amount of necessary patrols, freeing up soldiers for other duties.
It was clear that it was a necessary system. Humans had invaded SilverRiver territory to try and assassinate Zach, before the pack had discovered the Immortal species–ancient beings able with psychic abilities and control over the elements–with a group on them intent on decimating the pack. Clara wasn’t aware of all the particulars because it was above her pay grade, but the rumour mill was working overtime, especially because two Immortals had taken up residence at SilverRiver, apparently choosing to ally themselves with the pack. Someone had told Clara that the Immortals were relatives of Zach’s mate, Anna, but Clara still took off in the other direction if she ever saw them coming. There was a distinctly murderous aura about them that set off her flight response.
Her folks would have laughed at that. It had been a long running joke that Clara had missed out on any kind of flight instinct, always too curious about what was going on to have any kind of sense of self-preservation. There was a twinge somewhere in her chest, a familiar feeling when Clara thought of her parents.
Robert and Leslie Henderson had been true mates. They hadn’t always been in SilverRiver, having transferred here from a pack across the country before Clara was born. She’d been their only child, so the apple of their eye–some would say spoiled but whatever–although they hadn’t really known what to do with her. It was rare for two dominant wolves to give birth to a submissive, but that was exactly what had happened. They had muddled along together, all three of them learning a balance, especially when Clara’s temper got her into trouble. Three years ago, when Clara was just 17, her parents had fought alongside their alpha, Phillip, when his second had led an attack against him. Along with Phillip, and many others, Clara’s parents had been killed. She’d been left completely alone, but practically an adult, no one had believed it necessary to take her, especially when there was so much chaos and loss at the time. For a long time, Clara had been lost, unsure about her place in the pack. She’d flown under the radar for almost two years, until Zach discovered her talent for anything computer and hacking, although that last one was kept fairly quiet.
A noise dragged Clara out of her thoughts, her eyes focusing on that stupid error box, reminding her that it hadn’t magically fixed itself. Where were the magical I.T. elves when you needed them? Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Simon was poking his head into the room.
“Hey Clara,” he greeted. “You’ve been locked in here a while. How’s it going?”
Simon looked like a typical nerd. He was lean, missing the muscle mass that most dominants had, with a fondness for button down shirts that were always done up right to his throat. The look was completed by black framed glasses and thick brown hair that was always flopping over his forehead and into his eyes. A submissive like her, Clara wished that she could feel even the tiniest spark of attraction to Simon. He was intelligent and kind, if a bit slow on social cues, and would make someone a great mate one day.
“Clara?” Simon repeated, his brows coming together in a quizzical frown. He came further into the room and Clara blinked at him.
“Sorry, I was miles away.” Pushing off the ground, she swung her chair around so that she was fully facing him. “The program is giving me a little trouble. I think I need to give myself a break and come back to it with fresh eyes.”
“Sounds like a solid plan. When are the powers that be coming to check it?”
“I’m not sure. I spoke to Zach yesterday, but with the mating ceremony tonight, I doubt that they’ll have time.”
“So, get out of here. Go get some air, get something to eat and come back with fresh eyes.” Simon grinned at her. “Or I could take a look at it for you?”
Simon was good with some aspects of technology but writing programming was not one of them. Clara chuckled as she held both hands up in a ‘stop’ gesture. “Rain check, maybe? Like when I’m not working on something that is paramount to pack security.” Her tone full of self-importance, Clara widened her eyes at him dramatically making Simon chuckle. She got up and left the room, thanking him when he held the door open for her before following her out. Immediately he turned towards his office, two doors down.
“I’ll shout if anyone comes looking for you.” he promised over his shoulder.
“Thanks!” Anna said, even as his door snicked closed behind him. Simon wasn’t a super social person, but that made him great to work with because he always knew when to leave Clara alone.
Clara began the trek to the dining hall, passing the garages, training rooms, barracks and finally the offices. It felt like the tech rooms had been an afterthought, tacked onto the den wherever they could fit them, because they were so far away from everything. The den was a cave system that had been built beneath the Calmerial Ranges. Clara wasn’t sure exactly when it had been created but she knew Phillip, the old alpha, had been responsible. The floors and walls were all rockface, smoothed, and the place had plumbing and electricity (thank God), but Zach had spent the last three years modernizing the den even further. An air ventilation system had been added, cleaning and filtering the air, while special lights mimicked the movements of the sun, dimming as the sun went down. There were comm panels in basically every room, giving people the ability to contact those outside of the pack. These panels were where the system Clara was working on would send alerts, ensuring that the majority of the pack were aware during developing situations, hostile or not.
Reaching the dining hall, Clara found an apple and a cookie–her absolute downfall–before going to her quarters. She knew fresh air would probably help but she all she could think about was lying down on her bed, in her own space, and not speaking to anyone. She always got a bit melancholy when she thought about her parents. Losing them had left a huge hole and while Clara loved SilverRiver, she was starting to feel restless, as if something huge was missing out of her life. The maternals, especially Theresa, fussed over her, making she was looking after herself and happy, but that didn’t fill the need in Clara.
After twenty minutes, Clara forced herself to get off her comfy bed–she’d just bought a new mattress and it was like lying on a marshmallow–regretting that her cookie had already disappeared. The surveillance system was her priority and she needed to get her head back into the game. Clara grabbed her apple off the nightstand, munching on it as she headed all the way back to the tech rooms.
It was quiet as she opened the outer door, stepping inside. Clara couldn’t even hear Simon tapping away on his keyboard, so she figured he must have been called away to help someone with a computer problem.
Moving to her office, she opened the door and, as she went to step inside, froze. The scent of woods during a spring rain coupled with mint hit her hard, making a shiver ran down her spine. Clara knew if she looked down at her arms, the hairs would be standing on end. Her wolf sat at attention, head cocked inquisitively. This male always had the wolf’s attention, which was frustrating to no end.
The lighting in the room was dim but that didn’t hide him. Clara swallowed hard, her eyes starting at his black combat boots, tracing up over thick legs encased in black denim. Tucked in at his narrow hips was a dark green t-shirt, which stretched tightly over his abdomen and broad shoulders It honestly looked like if he twisted the wrong way, the seams would split. In other words, it left nothing to the imagination. Alex kept his hair closely shaven, the dim lighting making the dark brown look almost black. He had dark slashing brows that shadowed his chocolate coloured eyes. His jawline was wide and strong, and the muscle twitching in his cheek was clearly visible from where Clara stood. His full lips were pressed tightly together and as Clara watched, he crossed his arms over his chest–she was kind of sad when the shirt didn’t rip–somehow managing not to tap his foot impatiently. Clara’s wolf swished her tail in interest.
“If you’re quite finished gawking.” His words were quiet, but the irritation in his deep voice was very obvious and Clara felt her cheeks heat, even as her own temper spiked. She struggled to speak to authority figures, or even just wolves more dominant than her, coming across as timid and awkward. If someone was rude, however, her temper would surge and override every other good sense she had. Like that tricky sense of self-preservation.
“Excuse me?” she finally spluttered.
“Where the hell have you been?” he growled, and Clara conveniently ignored how her whole body seemed to tighten in response. “I have better things to do then stand around waiting for you.”
“How was I supposed to know you were coming now?” Clara demanded, keeping her eyes well away from his. If she made eye contact, her wolf would instinctively roll over and give him her throat. He was far too dominant and knew it, but Clara would not just bow down and let him have his way. “My schedule is not created around your desires.”
That might have been the wrong word to use. She saw his eyes narrow, his fists clenching, even as he kept his arms crossed.
“Don’t push me, Clara. Just show me the damn surveillance program. Zach said you needed it checked. Is it finished or not?”
Clara paused, her eyes darting to the computer and then back to Alex. Damn, damn, damn. The error. She had forgotten momentarily but the stupid error.
“Clara, I have shit to do.” His voice had gone impossibly deeper. “Is. It. Finished.” He spoke slowly, enunciating each word as if he were speaking to a toddler. Clara could feel her anger bubbling beneath her skin, and she sank her teeth into her bottom lip, trying to stop the words from coming out, and his eyes locked onto the movement.
“There’s a slight problem–”
“I knew it.” he cut in. “You’re not ready for a job like this. You told Zach that it was ready when it obviously isn’t. He never should have trusted you with this–”
Before he could continue–and before she could think better of it–Clara raised her hand up and threw her apple core right at his head. It felt like she was watching it in slow-motion as the core flew through the air before finally smacking into his forehead, bouncing onto the floor. Clara followed its movements with eyes before looking back up at Alex, a red mark already forming, right next to his temple, and a small trail of juice starting down his cheek. Alex locked his eyes with hers and immediately, Clara’s wolf backed up, tucking her tail between her legs. Before he could open his big, stupid mouth, Clara whirled around and stormed out of the room.