It wasn’t hard leaving my old pack. The time spent in Eysteinn’s cage had turned me into something else, someone else, and that someone else didn’t belong there. I tried to imagine going back to how things were, but I knew that interacting with the same wolves would be like talking to strangers. My mind saw them differently, and I didn’t want to see the lack of recognition in their eyes. They would remember a warrior, but now I was a pile of abandoned bones left unburied. No, the decision had been easy, not that there weren’t other reasons.
The other reason had been at my side since my liberation. He’d been there the moment of our recognition, when Alpha Erik had removed me from his pack, when King Zorian had added me to his, and when Soley had gone missing. The reason, named Rudesind, the grand beta of our kingdom, had been reliable and somehow had managed to be there for me despite his mountain of duties.
Even at Soley’s wedding he’d known to step in where I wasn’t comfortable. Members of our old pack like Alpha Erik had arrived to show their respects, and I avoided them the best I could. I also didn’t want them to see that I was on the precipice of my heat because I felt like a joke. I was an atrophied she-wolf fated to the second-strongest lycan in the kingdom. What right did my body even have in calling to him? As far as my career went, what right did I even have in applying to the King’s Army? Rudesind had never made me feel like I was lacking, but I was too afraid to witness it in other gazes—that maybe someone else entirely would simply be better. Someone who hadn’t been sapped dry.
It had taken everything in me, everything, to have grown into the warrior I’d been before Eysteinn. Though he was dead, what he’d stolen was irretrievable. Every day was a brutal reminder that I’d have to work for it, and I wasn’t sure I could do it a second time. Over ten years of fine tuning my body—gone.
Unfortunately, Rudesind wouldn’t let me run forever. He’d cover for me in some social situations, but others…
“I think,” Rudesind said, leaning in his chair to catch my eye, “I should teach you to dance.”
Soley and Koray’s wedding celebration continued well past their departure to consummate, and it hadn’t escaped my notice that this lycan had been building up to this question for over an hour. Maybe it was because he knew we’d be separated for a week soon, or maybe he was just looking for an excuse to be close. Either way, it’s not like I didn’t want to dance with him, I just knew I wouldn’t recognize myself.
I looked down at my lap, studying the skirts I wore. I preferred shorts as I liked the range of motion allowed and the feel of crisp air on my skin, but skirts hid the shape of my legs—legs that were no longer strong. Skirts also increased my odds of tripping, and that was something I’d rather avoid too.
I glanced up at my fated one and couldn’t escape the desire in his eyes. A stray blond strand had escaped his short, neatly combed hair. Beneath it, deep brown eyes regarded me under straight brows. Never in my life had I seen a gaze as commanding and as hypnotizing as Rudesind’s. Had I not had things to hide, I would have given him everything the day we’d met.
It just simply wasn’t the case.
The brawny lycan, however, did not give me a chance to turn him down this time. A thin whine slipped from my throat as he stood, loomed above me, and held out a large, calloused hand. My hands used to have calluses too. How long would it take for them to return? I couldn’t recall when I’d gotten mine.
“Rakel?” he asked again, shaking me from my attempt to remember. I stood abruptly, but my skirt had gotten trapped under a heel, and I fell forward toward the lycan and the table. One hand slapped down on the dining table while the male by my side caught the other, supporting me before I tumbled any farther. I was doubly embarrassed now, and I glanced furtively around to see if anyone had seen me trip or heard my humiliating whine. I never used to make noises like that—at least not in a very, very long time.
“Sorry,” I gasped and righted myself, moving my foot off my skirt. I was such a clumsy fool now. My muscles no longer held the throne, and I was back to where I’d been all those years ago, at the mercy of the rest of me.
“Oh don’t be sorry,” he chuckled, not letting go of my hand. “I’m learning such delightful dance moves from you. What was that one called?”
My face reddened further, and I wasn’t sure if I disliked his attempt to wash away my embarrassment with a joke. It pulled a strange, uncomfortable response from me, but it was also a reminder to try to get out of my own head. My therapist told me to feel, then let things go. If only it was that easy.
“That one,” I replied in a wavering voice as he lead me into a crowd of inebriated humans and shifters, “was called the Tipsy She-wolf.”
The male laughed as he cleared a path through the dancers, dragging me to where he wanted to go. “Are you tipsy, Rakel?”
“My constitution was not what it once was,” I replied softly. Many things had changed with my weakening. I’d quickly, and painfully, learned that my tolerance of alcohol was one of them.
“Or,” he said, turning to me once he’d found a bigger space for us in the masses, “someone is spiking your drinks.” He gently pulled me to him while flashing a gentler smile. “I shall investigate straightaway.”
The absurd tales he wove offered safe escapes for me, making it harder to keep my distance. With a reluctant heart, I answered his call to play. “And what would the reasoning for such a thing be?”
He tilted his head, making a great show of studying me before placing his free hand on my waist. I stiffened at the intimate contact but allowed it. His other hand kept mine trapped as he stepped backward, forcing me to step with him.
“I suspect that they are looking for castle secrets,” he answered, now making a show of searching the crowd. “This is actually the real reason why I asked you to dance. We must find the criminals.”
I fought the urge to laugh. “And why did they not spike your drink?”
He stepped to the left, forcing me to follow once more. “Oh they absolutely did. You might not know, but I’m utterly and undeniably hammered.”
“I think that if you’re able to perfectly say five syllable words, you’re probably not hammered,” I argued, feeling the unwanted bubble of mirth growing in my chest.
He stopped after a step toward me, making me back up. “Aw. You thought it was perfect? Thank you.”
I bit my lower lip with a somewhat elongated canine when a giggle threatened to escape. “I…” The male had thrown me for words, and I had no idea how to respond to such silliness. He was such a unique creature, full of contradictions. Nearly as large as King Zorian, his intimidating frame would have you looking twice if you caught him delivering a joke or acting in a gentle manner. He was a master at slipping between roles, knowing when a different part of him was needed.
It was still impossible to believe he was mine. Well, he wasn’t yet… but still. Time spent with him was surreal. I couldn’t fathom why he was mine. My face fell once more when I couldn’t fathom why I was his. I’d allowed myself to get caught. I’d allowed a goddess to get captured, even though She Herself had planned it. What did that say about me? I’d been caught in my prime, and now…
Rudesind shook me from my thoughts once more. “I’m gonna need you to look around for me. Can you do that?”
“What are y—”
The male lifted me off the ground, spun us around and planted my feet back on the floor. Wild-eyed, I gawked at him as I pushed hair from my face. “What was that f—”
“Look, I can’t see over the crowd,” he lied, gesturing at all the shorter humans and shifters. “Did you catch sight of the villain?”
That wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so he lifted me up once more, but kept me in the air. I grabbed his shoulder and pounded lightly with one fist.
“Let me down!” I yapped, hoping I at least wouldn’t be seen by Alpha Erik.
“Not until we find the rascal. We have a duty to our kingdom, Rakel,” he replied, laughing loudly over the din of dancers. Being up a moment more, I was significantly more aware of the way he was holding me. One arm had wrapped around to cradle my bottom while the other was supporting my lower back. His splayed fingers felt bigger pressed against me, and I swallowed hard, forgetting why I was even being hoisted.
“See them?” he called up to me, and I glanced down, feeling slightly panicky. He looked good in any lighting, but the low lantern light enhanced his mesmerizing features. The illumination flickered like water across him as dancers momentarily blocked one light source or another. Fire one moment, water the next, just like Rudesind.
His strong scent seemed to permeate through all surrounding aromata and was intensifying by the heartbeat. Being near him was like burying my face in a spruce tree. The sharp but sweet smell pulled at me, and all I could think about was getting closer to the source.
“Spruce… and orange,” I breathed, and the lycan holding me up looked confused. His arms lowered me slightly before he froze, and his eyes locked onto mine. My temples became dewy, and what had started as an embarrassed flush began to spread down my body.
“Rakel,” he mouthed and lowered me a little more, pressing my body to his.
I blinked hard and tried to pay attention to what he was saying. When sweat dripped down the side of my face, I was startled into realization.
“Maybe we need to get you home,” he said, though he seemed incapable of dropping me. Instead, his hands tightened, and he looked around for the shortest path out of the crowd.
“You can put me down,” I urged. “I’ll go find Ragna.”
He knew he wouldn’t be following me into my room, and his strained expression told me exactly how he felt about that.
“We’ll find her,” he asserted, sobering. He set me down, grabbed my hand and began cutting a path out of the crowd. The area was beautiful, and I took one last look at the scenery before I’d be locked into my room for a week. The oak trees were dressed in lanterns and garland stretched from branch to branch. The grass and earth were soft beneath my shoes, as spongy as the vibrant moss that adorned the surrounding rocks and trunks. My bed would be soft but not as luxurious as this wild place. Not as alive.
Queen Ragna? Rudesind called through our pack’s open link.
Yes, Rude? she replied after a moment.
I think Rakel needs to go back. It might be soon, he warned. The lycan bristled when a male turned to me, seemingly interested. Not wanting confrontation, I started walking faster than him, dragging the growling lycan out of the crowd with me. How humiliating it would be to have two males fight over a sickly-looking female.
Where are you, Ragna? I asked tiredly, searching the dinner tables for her. Before she could reply, I found her seated next to King Zorian and her parents. Luan was nearby, and when she saw me coming, she stood and waved me over to them.
“Time to go home?” my queen and friend, Ragna, asked as I approached. Her glittering green eyes studied me, but I wasn’t exactly in the throes of heat yet.
“I feel too warm. Best to play it safe,” I sighed, and she palmed my forehead, nodding slowly.
“Maybe another day, but I think you’re right. Let’s bring you home. Did you have fun?”
“Where’s Hekla?” I asked, avoiding answering her question. I wanted to say goodbye to her before leaving. I wasn’t sure when I’d see her next.
Ragna snorted. “They disappeared, probably to find some privacy. Things were getting lewd at the table, to put it lightly,” she informed.
“It seems that Belenus is learning to dole it out as well as she,” King Zorian said, who fell in step by Rudesind and Luan.
We did teach her a thing or two, Trail chuckled, and Ragna coughed loudly, hoping to cover up her wolf’s commentary.
“What could you have possibly taught Hekla?” I asked my red-faced queen.
She gave me a look that told me to shut my maw.
Later then, I said dryly over a private mind-link. Luan moved ahead of us, guiding the small group back to the coven where I’d be taken home to ride out my heat in solitude.