Before the Fall

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Chapter 24

3 years ago, Canada, Jackson Territory…

Grace speeds nearly twenty kilometers per hour over the speed limit trying to get to Dad’s clinic as fast as possible. He’d told her in an odd voice that morning about a meeting that was about to occur in the forest south of their territory and west of the Tremblays’ territory. Grace’s Alpha, Alpha Jackson, ruled with an iron fist and had no qualms shedding blood to get his way. Grace’s father, of course, worshipped the ground he walked on, because he was wealthy and powerful--and, of course, because Alpha Jackson nearly revered him for the work he did for werewolves all over Canada in the scientific and medical fields. Alpha Jackson was very traditional, not unlike Grace’s father--another reason they got along so swimmingly. Alpha Jackson believed in showing dominance through physical displays and took any suggestion of threat to his rule incredibly seriously. Not just because of this, but certainly in part, packs in the surrounding area generally had to take strong stances and be willing to sacrifice the same just to be able to maintain their territory. And maintain they did. Sometimes more than that.

This time, Alpha Tremblay had found a member of Alpha Jackson’s pack trespassing in his central territory and accused her of stealing--resources or information, it didn’t matter. It was probably a bogus claim to assert power in the first place. Everyone was always trying to one-up the other. The meeting was supposed to be to reestablish a treaty and return the trespasser peacefully. What Grace didn’t know at the time, was that the trespasser was Paisley West.

Paisley West.

Paisley West is the woman who Grace’s father swears is his True Mate. If that’s really true or not, Grace can’t confirm, but she’s inclined to believe it’s true because of what happened after the treaty meeting, but that will come later. Paisley West is originally from a midwestern pack in the United States who migrated to Canada for graduate school when she met Richard Holt, Grace’s father. For Richard, the connection was immediate and obvious, but Paisley already had her eye on someone else. Richard claimed she once admitted she did feel the pull of her True Mate in him and apologized for choosing someone else even so--but Paisley would always deny that conversation happened. To the public, Richard Holt was a man who had an unfortunate school boy’s crush that lasted too long and Paisley was just the unfortunate benefactor of his rejection. To Richard Holt, Paisley was the perfect woman who he would move on from out of necessity but would never be able to truly let go of. It was no coincidence they both landed and settled in the same town in Alpha Jackson’s territory. Paisley had a vice grip on Richard any way you looked at it.

No one could say why Paisley was trespassing in Tremblay territory that day, but she was. And she was punished for it. Alpha Jackson, along with Richard and a few others, went to the appointed spot for the meeting and found only a blood soaked woman in the stead of Alpha Tremblay and his representatives. The message was clear: zero tolerance policy, take it or leave it.

Werewolves heal faster than humans--remarkably faster, actually--but there are some things even they cannot heal from. Richard was white with terror that this was one of those times.

He was right to be worried.

Richard was a werewolf and a physician and he knew exactly how far one could push a werewolf’s body before it had to give out, and Paisley was right on the cusp. They were too far from his clinic to be certain to stop the bleeding soon enough, but there was nowhere else they could take an injured werewolf. The thing was, though, Richard wasn’t just a werewolf and a physician--he had an edge. He was a werewolf, physician, and father of the only girl in the world with the capability to ensure Paisley’s swift recovery.

Richard had gotten a bad feeling on the way to the meeting and had thus called Grace on his way, not thinking he’d need her, but wanting to have her close by just in case. So, fortunately for Richard, Grace was already on her way home from the University of British Columbia when Richard officially and desperately called in his hail mary.

Now that Grace was officially out of the house, tuition paid for by scholarship, and with a couple thousand under her belt from saving up all during high school, Grace could have finally been out from under her father’s thumb--except there’s her little brother and sister. So Grace remained in close contact with the family and on her father’s speed dial, even knowing he would no doubt abuse the number. He’d never been shy about asking her to use her gift, only just barely keeping his demands covert so as not to share her gift with anyone but him. The older he got, the more he asked her to do it. Deep down, Grace knew this day would come. She knew there would be a day when her father would ask her to do a job that would get her killed. And she would do it, too, because she loves him.

Only, she doesn’t.

Doesn’t do the job, that is.

Grace parks haphazardly in one of the employee reserved spots in the lot by her father’s practice, barely remembering to turn off the car before rushing out into the cold air and toward the entrance of her father’s private clinic. She doesn’t know what she’s walking into, only that her father had called her begging...and her father never begs. To be honest, she’d thought it might be something wrong with her mom, but that wasn’t it at all.

When Grace sees Paisley’s body lying on the examination table, she has several thoughts. The first one is a bitter, ah, it all makes sense now. Of course it’s Paisley. Her dad would only sound like that for one person, and it’s Paisley West. The second is this is going to kill me. Grace’s mother is also there, blood covered and looking horrified in the corner of the room. When Grace’s eyes shift to her father, sobbing, she has the sudden and surprising thought, I do not want to die for this man.

But then her father looks up from where he’s crying all over Paisley’s blood soaked hand and begs for her to fix it. And Grace...always has a hard time saying no, especially to people in pain. There are three facts facing her:

I do not want to die

Healing Paisley will kill me

I cannot let my father suffer

These three thoughts intersect and intermingle and clash and clutter until suddenly Richard is in Grace’s face, shaking her shoulders hard and screaming at her to fix Paisley. Grace can’t say no. So...she tries. She really does...she really… But did she? Did she really try as hard as she could?

To this day, Grace can’t confidently say whether or not she could have saved Paisley without dying herself, but when the moment came and the pain was ripping through her stomach, blood flowing freely...she couldn’t make herself do it anymore. Grace doesn’t know if it was cruel fate or just a coincidence, but the second Grace slips her fingers from Paisley’s hands, she flatlines. Now Richard is screaming, Grace’s mother is wailing, and Grace is bleeding everywhere from the injuries she had barely managed to heal before admitting she couldn’t take any more. Richard is shaking her so hard her vision blurs. He’s yelling so close to her face, she can smell his toothpaste and feel spittle on her cheek.

Then all the sudden his claws are out and his fangs are dropped. Grace only has a moment to realize that her father is going to kill her for killing Paisley before his claws are in her abdomen. Instinct extends her own claws and digs them into her father’s shoulders, trying to push him off, only he isn’t budging. Grace’s vision is blurring and her mother is screaming, but Grace will not die for this man.

But he’s so strong and desperate and out of his mind and it feels impossible...until out of nowhere his arms lose some of their strength. Grace might never get another opportunity to escape him.

So she slashes his throat.

:::::

Maya Holt used to be Maya Henderson. Until Matthew Henderson died and tore Maya’s heart in two in the process. They were True Mates. The world might still have doubts about whether or not Paisley West and Richard Holt were True Mates, but no one doubted Maya and Matthew. (Many years in the future, Grace will wonder if the True Mate bond is rooted in genetics, or if lightning really did just strike the same family three times.) Either way, Matthew died in a skirmish not long after Paisley rejected Richard officially all those years ago. Maya saw it this way: people pitied Richard; people pitied Maya. Richard needed a mate; Maya needed a mate. Already so many things in common. So she pursued him in the throes of all her grief and desperation to not be alone and they got married within six months. They wouldn’t realize until after their first child what a monumental mistake that was, but by then they were committed and they couldn’t back out. So naturally, they had two more.

Richard only wanted one, so he only really paid attention to the one unless he needed to. Grace was his opportunity to extend his legacy, to pass on his wisdom and knowledge and name and accomplishments. Maya was the one who wanted Alexander and Aria, so she could deal with them, he said. All they ever did was get in the way, anyway. All they ever did was test his patience.

For Maya, the kids were bandaids. Bandaids that never really worked in the first place, but she didn’t learn that until three pregnancies had gone by and she was just as devastated as ever. She didn’t have energy for anything besides her own unending grief. Thankfully, she had her Grace. Grace would put the kids to bed. Grace would walk them to school. Grace would squash their quarrels. She was such a good girl, that Grace. And she drew Richard’s judgemental eyes away from Maya, too. Such a good girl, that Grace.

Maya knew Richard would never truly get over Paisley, of course she did. She never would have been able to give up Matthew, and oh, how it hurt to say his name. (His name was never spoken in the house. She didn’t even know if the younger two knew about him. Maya only knows Grace knows about him because Grace had caught Maya looking through his pictures a few times, sticking her nose where she had no business being. Matthew was hers. Just hers.)

So yes, Maya was well aware Paisley would always play a part in their lives. She even wondered from time to time if that woman was going to be her ruin, but her life was on a certain trajectory already and she had no energy to change the course. Let life do what it may to her. It had already taken everything there was to take.

Except, she found, that wasn’t quite true.

Maya can’t help but scream while Grace draws all the hurt from Paisley and pulls it into herself. Richard is always so proud when he sees it (and yes, Richard is proud, but he goes to the grave harboring a secret resentment for feeling jealous of his daughter. The daughter he could never quite beat all the weakness out of. He could have done so much more with her gift.) but for Maya, it’s just unnatural. No one should have that kind of power over life. But she wants Richard to be happy, and if this will make Richard happy, then Grace has to do it. She’ll just scream while it happens, that’s all. When Grace drops Paisley’s hand, Maya thinks for a second that it’s over, that Paisley’s all healed...except then she stops breathing. And her heart stops beating. And she starts growing cold (so cold, just like Matthew, he was so cold at the end).

And Grace is just sitting there, panting, holding her stomach and crying from pain. She’s just...it’s like she doesn’t even care that her father is going to lose his mind now. She doesn’t know how much it hurts to lose your True Mate. She doesn’t know how long it hurts. How could she just let that happen to her father, doesn’t she love him? Doesn’t Grace love Maya?

The only good things left in Maya’s life now are Richard, Grace, and the other two--though she can barely stand any of them for too long--and now Richard’s whole being is going to be thrashed from this loss, and neither of them will be able to forgive Grace for it. Those two things--Richard’s insurmountable grief and Grace’s unredeemable sins--mean one thing to know and another thing to witness.

Grace is still crumpled on the floor bleeding while Richard shakes her hard enough to bobble her head, but she’s just not listening, so...so...so he claws her. Like he’s trying to gut her. But...but that’s how it feels to lose a True Mate and Grace let it happen, so doesn’t she deserve it?

But of course she doesn’t. She’s Maya’s child, her firstborn. Maya loves her more than anything. Grace doesn’t deserve to die, so when Maya sees her reach up to push her father away and fail, she comes up behind Richard to restrain him just enough while Grace...while she…

And then Richard is dead.

:::::

Grace’s stomach is on fire and she’s still bleeding heavily--though not as much as before--but her father is...dead. And then her mother is right there in her face, looking horrified at Grace. Like she can’t believe what she’s seeing. Grace would probably have to pinch herself too, if not for the burning pain coursing through her already.

Then her mother is backing away from her quickly, slipping on blood and catching herself on the counter. Grace sees her eyes catch on something, but from Grace’s vantage point on the ground, she can’t see what it is.

“I’m so sorry, Grace,” Mom whispers as she roots through the drawer, suddenly fixated. “You were always such a good girl, take care of the kids please.” She mutters under her breath one last thing as she searches. “Such a good girl, that Grace.”

And then she pulls out an empty syringe and plunges the tip into her arm and depresses the air into her veins. Gray wants to scream, but the air has been sucked out of the room and her mind is fuzzy with pain and confusion and probably a large dose of shock. Maya slides to the floor, clutching her forearm and everything seems to pause for a few long moments until she starts seizing and choking, probably suffering a major heart attack and finally going limp all too fast for Gray’s hazy mind to comprehend. Gray finally pulls herself out of her horrified stupor and stumble-crawls across the slick floor to reach her mother’s ankle.

She can fix this, she has to fix this. Gray makes skin to skin contact and tries to absorb the wounds into herself. She doesn’t care what will happen, just that this can’t be happening right now. She stares desperately into her mother’s eyes and sees her own brown ones, mirror images of her mother’s, in the glassiness of them.

Only the most shocking earth shattering pain rams into her at one hundred kilometers per hour and starbursts cloud her vision. The fingers locked around her mom’s leg shock open and her grip breaks. It takes several agonizing moments, but the pain ebbs after some time. When Grace is lucid again, she doesn’t know how much time has passed, just that Mom is barely warm anymore. But her heart isn’t beating and Grace can’t heal death.

Grace doesn’t realize that the price of trying to cheat death is not just momentary pain--all encompassing though it was--but streaks of gray hair and color-bled eyes. The hair will grow back normal, but the eyes will never repair themselves. The pretty chocolate brown orbs in the reflection are never to see the light again.

Grace lays among the death and carnage around her, feeling like the death angel is circling her head and waiting while blood continues to flow from her. Grace watches her skin grow paler and paler, until the wounds finally cauterize and heal enough that she can move again. The grim reaper leaves the doorway for now, but Grace knows he will stay nearby for a long while.

After all, Alpha Tremblay isn’t the only one who goes by a zero tolerance policy. And Grace has three massive strikes sprawled lifelessly around her. A total of four people entered this building today and only one woman will walk out.

There will be no trial.

So Grace has to get out of there, quick. But she has to think out a plan first. She can’t leave here bloody and still healing and not expect people to see her and ask questions. Especially if they knew Richard had called her to “assist” in Paisley’s life-saving procedures. And Grace has no doubt her father would have assured the entourage that he would be able to save her. He would have downplayed the severity of her injuries so they wouldn’t question her miraculous recovery too much. Even if Grace is able to fully clean herself up and magic up a clean pair of clothes, people who see her will expect news about Paisley’s recovery.

Time is of the essence, and yet time must be spent thoroughly planning an escape before she leaves. Grace knows she has to leave Jackson territory, no question. If she defects to another pack’s land, they’ll surely interrogate her for viability as a new pack member and look into her background. When they connect her name to Richard Holt, they’ll be soon enough informing Alpha Jackson of her whereabouts and using her as leverage. Not to mention, word is bound to get out amongst the werewolves about Canada’s best and most revered physician’s gory death alongside his wife and patient. Grace will forever be connected with her father in the eyes of Canada. The werewolf population of Canada, that is.

Grace has only ever lived in Canada, has no connections or even vague relations with packs outside it. But just crossing the Canadian border should be effective enough, with how closely guarded and exclusive the packs here operate. As long as she gets out of Canada, she should--in theory--be safe. But Grace can’t afford to take risks like that. She has siblings to look out for, after all.

Siblings. Alexander and Aria. She’ll have to take them with her, they’ll be in danger by association. Grace wouldn’t want to leave them with anyone in the pack anyway, with maybe the exception of Miss Audra. But Grace can’t just leave them. She’ll have to find someplace the three of them can be together. Miss Audra can get them appropriate identification and documents, she’s clever that way. She’s American originally, too. She’ll know how to set them up there.

Grace stands up, using the counter as a crutch for a moment, and shuffles over to the cabinet where there will be a fresh set of scrubs. It will be rather conspicuous, but she can change out of her bloody clothes and scrub her arms and face as much as possible. She’ll have to rinse her hair as well. Once she’s changed and dried, she’ll drive back home and meet Miss Audra at her cabin with Alexander and Aria. Grace will have to...she’ll leave the scene as it is here. Alpha Jackson will want to keep the incident isolated within the pack for a while, no humans involved, no weaknesses exposed to surrounding packs. She won’t have to worry about potential arrest for...for m--

That’s a thought for another day. Right now she has to get to Alexander and Aria.

:::::

Grace holds Aria and Alexander both close to her, pulling Aria to burrow into her chest and Alexander to cry silently into her hair. Aria, sweet eleven-year-old Aria, burst into tears three seconds after Grace told them they would never see their parents again. Alex reacted more on the spectrum of shock and disbelief. He was able to muscle through and help Grace pack bags for the three of them as long as she gave him explicit instructions to follow and he didn’t have to do any thinking for himself. Now though, here at Miss Audra’s cabin, it’s really hit him. Audra is flitting all around the house, making calls and sending messages, all while dabbing her wet eyes with her shawl every few seconds.

Grace has yet to shed a tear.

On the car ride over, she racked her brain for places they could go in America and a fuzzy memory emerged. Stroking Aria’s hair, Grace gets Miss Audra’s attention. “Miss Audra? Do you know what pack Paisley came from? In America?”

Miss Audra searches Grace’s face with pinched eyes and deep valleys in her forehead. “Somewhere in the midwest, I believe. Wyoming, maybe. Whereabouts I can’t tell you.”

Grace hums. “I just remember hearing Dad say how she liked it here with Alpha Jackson because we’re much more close knit. In her American pack she said no one ever paid her attention unless she was in trouble.”

Audra sighs tiredly and connects the dots. “And you do need to stay unseen, don’t you? Clever child.” She dabs her eyes with the already damp corner of her shawl again. “You know I hate to send you so far off by yourself, but you are wise to stay invisible for a while. What has happened to you...it will follow you for a long time, my dear.”

Grace’s lips start to tremble so she flattens them together. “What do you mean, Miss Audra?”

Miss Audra floats closer and tells Aria and Alexander to go to the kitchen and pour themselves a cup of her immune-strengthening tea with herbs to promote positivity and peace. Alone, Miss Audra whispers with an edge. “Alpha Jackson is not keen on forgiving and forgetting, the pig. Especially now that his favorite trick pony is--” Audra’s left eye twitches, “--gone, he’s going to put the pieces together, lovey. This is not going to be an easy fix, I’m afraid.”

Grace inhales shakily. “So what do I do? How can I fix this, Miss Audra?” she asks desperately. She wishes fiercely that Miss Audra could fix this with one of her salves or special teas, but unfortunately this isn’t that kind of problem.

Audra pulls Grace into a tight hug, a bone-breaking hug. When Miss Audra brushes Grace’s hair back and tucks Grace’s head into her neck, Grace starts to break down. Miss Audra lets her have a moment for maybe ten seconds before she pulls away suddenly, causing Grace to stumble. “Miss Audra?” she whimpers.

Audra looks at her with strength and determination in her face and grief in her eyes. “Grace. You have found yourself in a dire predicament, one that no weak woman could live through. It’s a good thing you are not weak.” She winks once before sobering again. “You will need to be your own strength through these times, lovey. It will be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel for certainly a long time. You are now responsible for two children. Don’t let them see you crumble, girl, okay? You cry with them, you lay with them, but you do not fall apart in front of your brother and sister, okay? They need a pillar right now, and you have been their strongest one since they were born. They cannot afford to have their strongest pillar weaken under them right now. You can fall apart, but not anywhere they might see you. Do you understand?”

Grace gulps in a few breaths. She wipes her tears, straightens her posture, bodily shoving and tucking and crushing her grief into something more manageable. Miss Audra is right. She can’t be weak right now, she has no choice. This is for Alexander and Aria. Grace swipes a hand over both her cheeks one more time to erase any last trace of wetness. “Yes, Miss Audra. I understand.”

Audra takes Grace’s head into her hands and looks her deeply in the eyes. “Yes, you do, girl. I see it. You will overcome this.” Grace can see every pained contortion of her face, close as it is to Grace’s. She enunciates and speaks slowly in a way that means she’s trying not to reveal any emotion. “You will have to make hard choices. Your eyes...Grace, you will never be able to escape notice with your eyes, haunted and beautiful as they are. Those children have a chance for true anonymity, for true and lasting escape from this hell that has been brought on their heads. Do you understand?”

Grace clenches her teeth and for the first time, hates Audra. She hates Miss Audra for what she was telling Grace to do.

She hates that it’s true.

:::::

Once Grace and her siblings had made it to Wyoming, she’d arranged for the two of them to finish the school year online and have a service bring them meals weekly. Grace told them the three of them would lay low for a while and keep an ear to the ground when they could. Miss Audra had gotten them permission from the Alpha to settle in his boundaries, and all they had to do was stop at the Alpha’s home to introduce themselves and be swiftly dismissed. Grace sweated through the whole five minutes, grateful that, for one, half her face was covered by giant tinted sunglasses, and for two, that no one questioned them.

Miss Audra helped Grace get set up with a small stipend from the American government as emancipated “American citizens” that Grace made sure Alexander thoroughly understood as well. Grace transferred all her funds to Miss Audra, who would wire an allowance to Alexander’s new account every month. Grace went as far as to plan a budget nearly to the cent with Alex. The transfer of funds would be the only link from Alex and Aria to anything in Canada, but Grace trusted Miss Audra implicitly.

Grace stayed with them for two weeks. Promised them they would stick together, that it was them against the world. She promised she’d always protect them, that she would never let them down.

So many words...words of fancy and idealism. So many empty promises. So many wrongs she knew she might never get to right. And yet, she made those promises so that she could remember that the last time she looked into their eyes, they looked back at her with love and trust and gratitude. It may have been the most selfish thing she has ever done. Certainly the most cruel. And still, she hordes that memory like a priceless gem.

Because after those two weeks, all that was left of Grace was a note, and they were never to see her again for three years.

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