Free of the Crown
Sam spat out the taste of the alpha-king’s blood and stepped away while Lorelei finished ripping her father apart, snarling in rage while her fur bristled. The rest of the room was just as stained, with dead bodies pulled out of the way so the breakaways could watch their new queen take her crown.
All except Sam. He had killed enough times to recognize the look of a body that could no longer fight back, and he left before the alpha-queen changed over and finalized her father’s death with a silver dagger to the throat. The howling started behind him before he’d even made it out of the first hallway. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this tired.
He left the citadel completely, returning to an area of the royal quarters that still had working showers. Cold water only, which reminded him of washing off after a pit fight. He didn’t feel any different now than he had back then: grim and ready to go home.
When he stepped out of the bathroom, still toweling himself off, his nose alerted him a second before his eyes that he wasn’t alone.
The alpha-queen sat in one of the velvet chairs near a dressing table, fully dressed and composed despite the lingering tang of blood. Her face was turned away from him, and she remained silent—polite gestures that gave him the decision to address her or not.
Lorelei had always been the smaller and quieter of the sisters despite being the eldest. Liana had been the rangy, boisterous one, insisting on fencing lessons from the royal duelist and learning how to drive a car in secret to pull a trick on her guards one All Fools’ Day. Everyone had been shocked that it was delicate little Lorelei who had been chosen to mate with the Baca alpha-king, a pack known for prizing strength and size above all else.
The bodyguard with her now was a prime example. Aznar was the only other survivor of the Baca Pack, as hulking as Lorelei was small. A nasty slice from a silver blade had left him with a scar on the throat and the inability to speak, but Sam had watched him enough to know he was a mean son of a bitch in a fight and unfriendly even toward the breakaways. A typical Baca wolf.
Sam gave the alpha-queen a nod that was deep but brief, enough to acknowledge her new crown but not enough to acknowledge her as his queen. “Your Majesty.”
Aznar stared at him while he began dressing, obviously not liking his lack of deference, but the alpha-queen relaxed in her seat and said, “Please, just Lorelei. I’ll hardly hear my name from now on, and this isn’t a formal conversation.”
Sam nodded again, already onto his shirt.
When he remained silent, Lorelei glanced at his opened suitcase. “You brought spare clothing into this room before the final fighting began. It’s because you plan to leave right away, isn’t it?”
“The old king is dead. I did what I came here to do, and now it’s time to go.” Already, he was thinking of Cora. Some days, remembering her laugh had been the only thing to keep him steady. Two months was a long-enough chance for the former fiancé. If Sam smelled any excitement in her scent over seeing him again, he wasn’t holding back for the human’s sake.
The alpha-queen nodded at his answer, her crown gleaming with the movement. To his surprise, she then took it off, setting it on the table. Embedded rubies continued to glimmer beside the fangs of conquered enemies as she said, “Will you stay a few minutes longer? We’ve never truly talked to each other. Only as part of a larger meeting.”
Sam could guess what the topic would be about and bit back a sigh. When he glanced at Aznar, he found the other wolf glaring back at him, and was even surer about that guess. He sat at the foot of the bed to face her, now doing up his tie. “Sure, that’s fair enough.”
Her fingers clasped and unclasped. Without the crown, she looked very young—and was, barely twenty-three. “There has been a lot of talk already about my future mate. Whether he should secure an alliance with another pack, as my first did, or whether he should be a wolf who will help me rebuild this territory.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“I haven’t decided, but your name keeps coming up.”
He said nothing, aware that doing so bordered on rudeness but also too damn tired to pick out a polite way to tell her that he was done with pack life.
“You don’t want to be king.” It wasn’t a question.
He sighed. “Lorelei, this is no longer my home.”
“I know,” she said, softly. “And I think I understand why you came back at all.”
Then she lost enough of her composure to rise from her seat and pace throughout the dusty finery of the room. A ring glittered on her first finger, and Sam recognized it as one that had belonged to her sister.
Lorelei played with it for several moments before speaking again. “As far back as I can remember, I never wanted to be an alpha-queen. I disliked the attention of being a princess, how all my strengths and habits had to be pruned to increase my attractiveness as a mate and my ability to bear heirs. My sister was far louder about her disdain toward being a ‘living doll,’ as she called it, but I sympathized with her. All I wanted was to be a quiet creature who lived with her books. Unnoticed except as a scholar.”
Only to be mated into a vicious pack like the Bacas. Sam felt real pity for her. “I’m sorry.”
She looked at him, seeming surprised more than anything. “Don’t be. I’ve also long known how comfortable it is to be a princess. I never had to worry about food, or being challenged, or feeling cold or tired. I was a doll, pampered and fussed over, but I also had far more power than anyone else except my parents and never had to earn it or feel the consequences. As a princess, I dreaded the idea of ruling over a pack. As a queen, I’m absolutely terrified. There is nothing to stop me from turning into a leader like my father. I have only my own determination to prevent the corruption of wearing a crown.”
Then she approached Sam, true pain etched into her face. “I know you came back because of what my father did to you for trying to save my sister. I know you will never trust pack life again. I am so very sorry that he took your loyalty and used it for something unforgivable.”
Sam could smell her earnestness and her grief for her sister, but all he could do was be honest with his words. “You’re not the one who needs to apologize. You were caught in his greed like the rest of us. But now we’re all free, and I’m not interested in a crown.”
“Perhaps that sentiment makes you all the more suited for one,” said Lorelei, quietly. “Perhaps it’s part of what makes you a true leader who has guided and protected the pack for the past two months. You are my first choice, Sam Hayes, to rule with me, because I think we both understand the price and power of duty.”
For him, too well. As he rubbed at his face, she added, “I won’t expect love. I won’t ask for it.”
Even with his hand over his eyes, he sensed Aznar bristle again. It helped along words that could explain the decision living in his heart from the moment Cora’s scent had left his clothes. He rose to his feet as well, looking at Lorelei. “I believe you, but I am, and that’s why I’m going back to the city.”
The gossip among the pack had included his closeness with Cora, and he knew the alpha-queen had heard about it. As he suspected, she took his answer with complete calm despite just being turned down for a human.
In fact, she looked almost wistful, and as he resumed dressing, he added, “You know, an hour into the fighting, I noticed you shot the royal guard that was close to gutting Aznar even though there was another one threatening Micah, your best tactical advisor. And I also noticed that Aznar has hated me since my name joined the rumor mill of who you’d choose as your king.”
There was a sudden move from Aznar, but the alpha-queen stopped him with a brush of her hand. She looked cautious, the muscles in her slender throat as tight as wire. “I can see why you have a fine reputation as a detective.”
He smiled wryly and put on his hat. “It’s hard to stop noticing things. Trust me, Your Majesty, if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that duty will suck you dry as badly as power. You need love and trust like anyone else.”
The anger in the bodyguard’s scent only increased, but Lorelei briefly searched his face and relaxed. “You truly mean that, so I’ll take it to heart. Thank you. Please believe you’re always welcome to visit.”
He nodded, relaxing himself. “Goodbye.”
Aznar gave him a final flash of fangs when he passed by, but Sam couldn’t blame the other wolf. He had the same feeling whenever he thought of Roland Archer touching Cora.
It was hard to believe he was back in the city until his taxi turned down the street to his office. The afternoon sun burnished the glimpses of the ocean in between buildings. He could taste the salt in the air.
The cab stopped in front of the building, and he paid the driver before getting out for his luggage. He had barely grabbed his suitcase before the office door flew open and Jane ran down the stairs for him.
She clung to him in a hug. “Idiot. Moron. Lunk.”
He was already grinning. “I missed you, too.”
His relief matched hers as they made it inside. Everything looked like he left it, and he collapsed in the chair behind his desk, feeling boneless. “It’s swell to be home.”
He would have reached for the phone next, remembering his promise to Cora, but just then Jane sat on the desk, blocking him. She looked excited, eyes bright and wild. “Then you’re not going back?”
“No way in hell.” Then he studied her. “That look on your face… you knew about the alpha-queen’s interest in me.”
“Did you think my sanity could survive the past two months without making sure you were alive and well?”
He laughed, leaning back in his seat. “Little spy. Where’s Mabel?”
“You must’ve been driving her nuts. She never takes a day off. She’s up to a whole month of saved vacation hours.”
Jane shrugged, smirking slightly. “Not anymore. She’s been gone for about three weeks. It’s given me all the peace and quiet I need to work on my prototype.”
“Three weeks?” repeated Sam, with the first pang of misgiving. He knew how obsessive Jane grew over a project when left completely alone. She would even forget to eat. “Have you kept up with all the things she usually does?”
“What’s there to keep up with? You were gone, so there weren’t any clients.”
“Collecting the mail.”
When Jane merely shrugged again, he added, “The mail, which contains the bills we need to pay. Did you pay last month’s bills?”
The smile left her face. “Um…”
He reached around her to grab the phone, stomach sinking. The line was dead. “Jane, when’s the last time you remember any of our phones ringing?”
“I might have overlooked a few important things,” she admitted. “But at least we still have electricity.”
“Here, anyway. What about at my apartment? Did you miss any bills for it?” When her expression changed again, he groaned. “Did you visit it at all?”
“Once. The day after you left.”
“Then my car hasn’t been moved for street cleaning for two months.”
“It’s possible that they chose not to impound it.”
When he rubbed at his face, her voice grew small. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“It’s all right.” He looked at her as reassurance that he meant it, but as he got up and moved for her office on the off-chance her phone line hadn’t been killed, he couldn’t help saying, “Just… what have you been doing this entire time?”
By the time she realized where he was headed, he was already through the doorway. Her voice rose after him. “Wait, let me go in first. I have, um—”
He stopped short, staring at the area of her workspace cleared as a desk. A tiny stuffed teddy bear sat beside the phone. “Jane, what the hell? That’s the kind of prize they hand out at the boardwalk.”
“So what?” She sounded defensive while picking up the bear, cradling it protectively.
He eyed it and then her. “The boardwalk is fun. You never have fun.”
“It wasn’t fun. It was educational. I needed to do something while waiting to see if you’d survive last night, so I practiced my aim.”
“You… won that?” Still baffled, he glanced toward the alcove where she kept a cot for sleeping near her work.
She tried to block his view, even standing on tiptoe. It didn’t work. Another teddy bear, this one as big as Jane, filled the cot. “That can’t be yours. They only give those to someone who made every shot.”
Then it hit him. He couldn’t hide his horror as he looked back at Jane. “You and… no.”
She flushed bright red. “I can have personal relationships, too.”
“But with Al Dempsey? Why? You hate authority.”
“Not when it comes with such impressive attributes,” she snapped, glaring at him. “Shall I start with his physical ones?”
Sam cringed. “All right, forget I asked. I need to go out and get everything up and running again.”
“I’ll come along to help,” she said, already mollified. “Since it is my fault.”
As they gathered up their things to leave, she added in a more serious tone, “You haven’t asked about Miss Marshall. Or her former fiancé.”
“There’s no need. I plan to find out for myself.” Despite exhaustion and the list of irritating errands ahead, eagerness filled his movements. “I’ll give her a call at the nearest pay phone, and if she’s out, I’ll find her as soon as I get my damn car back. I’m through with duty.”