Chapter 4: Max
Max slipped off the driver’s seat, glancing towards the house just as the front door opened and his Gamma, Nikki, stepped through it with a cigarette hanging from the side of her mouth and a cup of steaming coffee in her long, bony fingers. She waited for them on the porch, wearing her usual calm expression, which could only mean everything was ready for the Ironclaw pack’s arrival. However, the look in her eyes was stormier than usual.
“It’s about time,” she said before slurping her coffee. Max tossed the keys to the omega that rushed to take the car to the garages in the back and headed towards her. Logan and the others vacated the rest of the cars, with a few of the warriors driving after the omega.
“We came back as fast as we could,” Max replied as he reached her, glancing back at the road they had come from. Their packhouse was on the outskirts of the nearest town. It was close enough for convenience, but still far enough so that humans wouldn’t bother them or constantly cross into their lands. This gave them the freedom to live undisturbed, shift whenever they want, and keep a semblance of order, which Nikki was mostly in charge of. Their proximity to a human settlement also gave them a certain level of security since rogues instinctively avoided crowded, loud places and other packs were wary of the police or being exposed.
“They are less than twenty minutes away,” Nikki informed him, running the hand holding the cigarette through her short, graying hair. She was twice his age, if not more. Even though the years were slowly making their way into her appearance, she seemed to care less and less about it. Max didn’t care either — as long as she did her job, she could keep her position until her dying breath. Her mate had been his father’s Gamma, but the couple had managed the day-to-day needs and responsibilities of every pack member together, regardless of the fact that Nikki was an omega. That was, until a few years ago, a rogue attacked the packhouse when most of the warriors were out on errands. Max had heard that his father’s Gamma faced him alone while trying to protect the omegas who couldn’t shift and run. Nikki had finished the rogue off with an ax since she couldn’t shift either, but it had already been too late for her mate.
Ever since then, she had been doing the Gamma’s work by herself, without complaint or a day off. Both his father and Max had agreed that there was no one better than her for the position. Max had even given her the title in an official ceremony in front of everyone, which was the first time he saw her tear up after her mate’s death.
“Hey, Alpha,” her voice pulled him out of his reverie, and Max realized he was staring at her without listening. The lack of sleep and the long drive were starting to take a toll on him and he was spacing out more than usual. “I am a bit old for you to gaze at me like that, so why don’t you find a younger tree to climb, eh? It will make us all happy, I assure you.”
“Not you too,” Max grimaced, and Nikki smirked.
“Anyway, as I was saying, they are about twenty minutes away. One of our lookouts spotted them just before your arrival. There are thirteen of them, all in human form.”
Max nodded, glancing around for a second.
“I’ll go take a quick shower and change,” he said, ignoring the watchful eyes that followed him as he headed towards the front door. He stepped inside, looking around the anteroom. The main building was empty from what he could hear. He had ordered all the omegas to stay away from the guests unless they had an urgent job.
The Ironclaw pack was rumored to treat their own omegas like trash and Max didn’t want his people experiencing that first hand. It was impossible to keep them away during the entire stay of their guests, but he preferred to deal with those big-headed assholes himself. At least he could easily put them in their place if they crossed the line.
Before he knew it, he was already in the shower, washing away the sweat and fatigue that had stuck to him since his run in the morning. He needed to stay sharp every second of their stay, or he was afraid they might try something. He was going to be damned if he let his people get hurt by someone he personally invited into his home.
A knock came from the door while he was dressing, and Logan’s voice urged him to hurry. Max slipped on a pair of jeans and a shirt as fast as he could, running his hand through his wet hair as he made his way downstairs.
Once he found himself outside, he noticed Logan pacing back and forth on the porch while a few other warriors had joined them, doing their best to look like they were casually hanging out. The distant sounds of cars made Max look towards the road leading to the packhouse. He narrowed his eyes at the whirlwind of dust in the distance, his heightened vision letting him count three vehicles moving their way.
They all waited in silence, watching their guests close the distance. Once the first car moved among the trees that were encircling the packhouse from several sides, Max took a deep breath, trying to make his face look friendly. He had met their alpha once before and he couldn’t remember a single redeeming quality of his, apart from that strength he was famous for among the other packs. But now that Max was all grown up, strength didn’t scare him. He had been beating stronger opponents even before he turned eighteen and he was well aware that in terms of strength alone, there weren’t that many among his kind that could stand their ground against him.
The cars parked in the vacant space in front of the packhouse and the people inside prepared to get out, whispering among each other. Max climbed down the stairs leading to the porch, checking each face and remembering their scents in case anything happened. A sweet, delicious smell tickled his nostrils as he was doing the headcount and he looked around, wondering if it was coming from the kitchen. It was subtle, but at the same time overwhelmingly strong and it made him hungry and thirsty at the same time. But as he turned his head in the direction of the kitchens, he realized there was no noise or smell coming from there, not even a soul heating something in the microwave.
Then where the hell was this smell coming from?
The passenger door of the first car opened and a tall, well-built man with dark hair and cleanly shaved face stepped out from the passenger seat, a moment later followed by the rest of his pack. Their alpha was a bit older than Max, but you couldn’t tell just by looking at him. He wasn’t the tallest among them or the biggest, but he had an air around him that made even his own men keep a respective distance. And those sharp, dark eyes could make even someone who didn’t know what he was recoil fearfully and consider fleeing.
One after another, doors opened and men emerged into the early afternoon, looking around curiously. The scent intensified to a point that all of Max’s thoughts were pushed out of his head, leaving only one — he needed to taste it, whatever it was. He had never been that particular about his food and he couldn’t remember even having a favorite dish, so this sudden urge made no sense.
His senses finally pinpointed the source of the intoxicating scent and his eyes locked on one of the people by the last car. Max’s body turned hot and rigid as he met the eyes of the person standing by the back door of the car, squeezing it tightly with a startled expression.
Max’s wolf stirred awake without warning, eager to take over, pushing for control and almost forcing him to shift on the spot. After a few seconds of struggle, Max reined the damn beast in, but the animal inside refused to settle, growling excitedly while repeating the same thing over and over.
“Mate! Mate! Mine! Mine!”
Max focused his attention back on the young man with sandy blonde hair that was just saying something to his pack members. They nodded with annoyance and he disappeared behind the trunk of the car, hiding from view. Max’s wolf whimpered the moment he lost sight of him, and Max found himself stepping forward. The need to find him again and keep him close overwhelmed any common sense and composure.
He had barely made a couple of steps when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned, a growl rising in his throat as he glared at the person who tried to stop him. Logan stared at him with a confused expression, trying to keep his smile on.
“What are you doing?” he mouthed, glancing at the approaching guests. “Greet the Alpha properly. Everything else can wait.” Logan pushed past him, plastering a broad smile on his face as he stepped to greet the group of men. Max shook his head, trying to silence the wailing voice inside his head, and focused his attention on the alpha of the Ironclaw pack.
Logan was staring at him expectantly, and so were they.
“Welcome! I hope you had a pleasant journey here,” Max said, trying to keep his voice polite when he extended his hand towards their alpha. As he shook his hand, Hunter watched him with the edges of his lips twitching upwards, as if trying not to laugh. If he wasn’t so rattled, Max probably would have grown annoyed at the badly concealed mockery, but he barely had the concentration to keep the civil tone, let alone do more.
“It wasn’t so bad… for the north,” Hunter said, his lips finally curving into a smirk. “Don’t look so tense, Max, you’re making me feel bad. I promise all my men will be on their best behavior while we are here. We won’t cause you any trouble, right, boys?” He turned towards his warriors and they all grinned, murmuring their agreements. Max sensed his eye twitching, but thankfully, Logan was there to defuse the situation before he said something he was going to regret.
“And we appreciate that,” Logan smiled at them. “Shall we go inside? We have food and refreshments prepared for you and after that, I’ll have someone show you to your rooms so you can get some rest after the long drive.”
“Sounds good,” Hunter shrugged, his eyes moving back to Max. “That is, unless your Alpha has something more important to do? If I remember correctly, you were the one begging for us to come and ‘talk’ and now you look like you have no interest in us.”
Max’s jaw tightened at the choice of words, but he forced a smile on his face. His anger took over inside, quieting down his wolf completely and clearing his head from all other thoughts but the group of strangers in front of him.
“You still talk too much, Hunter,” Max scoffed. “Let’s go have a drink so I can tolerate your horrible character. The others are welcome to join.”
Max eyed them for a second, making sure he put as much intimidation in his expression as he could without looking like he was planning to tear them to pieces. A few of them averted their gazes.
His smile grew, and he turned his back on them, heading towards the house. He stopped at the door, turning over his shoulder when he realized they weren’t following.
“You coming or what? I have a twenty-year-old whiskey with your name on it, Hunter. Let’s not let it go to waste.”
Hunter’s smile grew, and he pushed past Logan, who glanced back at the cars thoughtfully before following with the rest of the Ironclaw pack in tow.