“We’re not a bad team,” Cameron ran his hand through his hair.
We sauntered back into town like hot shit, all smug and high on the adventure. It felt like we could have come home to a whole parade, but at this time of night, the streets were quiet and the buildings were dark. Even the snow fell without consequence. As soon as the paramedics arrived, we separated and ran back to town on all fours. Cameron planned to say goodnight to Mark and then, pay a visit to the families of the wolf kids.
Everybody seemed like they were going to make it. Ryan was resting when we checked on him at the hospital. Apparently, a china cabinet had toppled on top of him when he tried to escape. It wasn’t one of the newer models made of cheap wood or glorified cardboard. This was an old school cabinet, built with real mahogany and carved with someone’s hands. It snapped poor Ryan’s ankle. He’d be wearing a cast for the next six weeks. Luckily, we got there before he could sustain anything worse than some second degree burns and a litter of bruises.
Dominic elected to stay and watch him.
“Were you a Beta in your old pack?” Cameron asked me. “I mean, I know you’re a Beta, but were you a hand to your Alpha?”
I rubbed my neck. My voice came out small, still fighting to hide the truth. “Um, no. He was a bit older than me...” My chest twisted, talking about Ezra. I hadn’t even said his name since we went rogue and the taste of his name dried out my throat. “His kids were younger. He always said I missed my destiny.” I laughed bitterly and shut my mouth. One more second and I might have gone all weepy on Cameron. I didn’t want him to think he won me over or anything.
My defenses flared up and I scowled at the blonde Alpha, rolling my shoulders back. “Why do you even care?”
Cameron blinked, unruffled. “I wanna be your friend.”
I’m the ruffled one. My brows squeezed together. “What?”
Cameron shrugged. “I don’t really have friends anymore. When I came back, everybody started treating me differently. I’m the Alpha, so I get it but even my friends from high school act like I’m a totally different person... it’s lonely.”
He looked at me. Really looked at me as if looking for that silent agreement. Hiding it, I snorted and rolled my eyes. “You really need to make up with Mark. You’re grossing me out.”
Groaning, Cameron tipped his head back in defeat. We made our way through the town when a smell made my nose trickle. Rushing past the Dearest Inn welcoming sign, Mark looked both way, before eyeing us. He was out of breath and even in the snow, he wasn’t wearing shoes or anything more than sweatpants and a T-Shirt. Cameron straightened up like I punched his back. Our pace quickened to meet him.
Mark shook his head. “Hold on, hold on.” He raised his hands out, but not at Cameron. He was trying to stop me. “Wait,” he demanded, his face twisted. He looked afraid. Afraid of what was behind him and afraid that I wasn’t going to stop.
“What’s going on?” Cameron asked, shedding his jacket. He tried to get Mark to wear it, but he was too distracted. He avoided it and grabbed me.
“There’s two wolves in there,” Mark explained, gravely. His voice went low enough to go six feet under and cause the dead to stir. “They’re saying a lot of crazy stuff, but they’re looking for you and I can’t let you three run into each other. They can’t know you’re here-”
“Drew,” I said his name unconsciously, stepping forward, but Mark pushed back.
“No. Grace and Liam are taking care of Drew. It’s my turn to take care of you.” He snatched Cameron’s jacket and draped it over my shoulders. My heart thundered, trying to escape the confines of my ribcage. It was bruising. Taking my arm, he dragged me deeper into the woods, taking the long way to circle the Inn. My pace constantly tried to edge out Mark, but he didn’t stop pulling me further and further back.
“I’ll go ahead,” Cameron said.
I grabbed his arm, which forced me to realize I was shaking. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what to say. I just didn’t want him to go without me there to explain myself. He couldn’t turn on me too. Not when I trusted him. Not when I had already made the mistake of keeping this secret from them. All the things Jacob’s wolves could have been telling Liam or Grace made me sick to my stomach. What if Mia heard something? She didn’t need to know about this kind of violence in the world, not yet.
Cameron nodded and put his hand over mine. “We’ll go together.”
I let him go, swallowing the acid bubbling up my throat.
Suddenly, Mark’s phone buzzed. He answered it before the last ring ended. “Are they gone?” He got to the point, my hero. He looked at me. “They’re gone-”
That was all I needed.
My feet carried me across the woods behind in the Inn, faster than ever before. Somewhere along the way I lost Cameron’s jacket. I was as close to flying as I had ever come. They called my name, but I didn’t listen. I just kept running, my senses sensitive to every sound, touch and the dim light of the Inn. I closed my eyes, searching for Drew in the haze of fear and horror. I threw myself into the kitchen.
“Drew!” I shouted, searching every inch of the room. “Drew!” I ran out into the lounge, scaring the phone out of some girl’s hands. It clattered to the floor as I dashed for the stairs. “Drew!” I ran for our room as Grace poked her head out.
“We’re in here,” she said and just as I slipped by her, Drew barreled headfirst into my chest. He quivered inside my arms and I gathered him up, holding him so tight, he couldn’t fall apart.
“Are you alright? Drew?” I leaned back, but his hands still held my clothes in tight fists. His face was sticky and pink, his eyes still blood shot.
“I-it was Lloyd and Alex,” he said, and my stomach flipped. The last I saw either of those guys, I had tried to rip them to pieces. I left them as bloody and wounded as they left me, but apparently, I didn’t finish the job. I should have made sure those assholes had at least one foot in the grave. I cursed, pulling Drew close again.
“I’ll be okay,” I said into the room, unsure who in the world I was talking to. I was going out of my mind. I couldn’t think of one thing, everything blurring together. “I’m so sorry.” I shouldn’t have gone with Cameron. I should’ve stayed with Drew. We were too comfortable. We made ourselves so vulnerable to an attack. I asked for this.
“They said you killed them-” Drew’s voice caught, his voice shaking. I could still feel his heart, beating faster than a train rattling across the tracks. “They said you were the one who killed Ezra and everyone and that you kidnapped me and-”
“What?” I asked, the words cool as if an icepick had been plunged down my throat. I looked around the room, at Cameron and Mark by the door. Grace, since the moment I stepped into the room, her eyes had been pinned on me. Liam just stood in the other corner, his arms crossed as he held his breath. Me and Grace competed for his attention.
Everything, the edges and the room and everyone blurred out of view, creating a tunnel vision. My heart bludgeoned the inside of my skull, pounding on my eyes. I clung onto Drew a bit closer, a bit tighter as I stroked the back of his hair and his neck. “Okay... Okay...” My mind whirled, thinking of twelve different plans for my next move. It had been a long time since I felt like a little boy, who caused a mess that was too big for just him to clean up.
“Jess,” Grace finally spoke. “What’s going on?” Her brow twitched. Her need for the truth just barely outweighed her need to mother me. I could see it in her face, the pain she felt being so far away from me and Drew. What I wouldn’t give to make it so her love was enough to save us.
“It’s not true. Nothing they said was true,” Drew pleaded to Cameron and Mark, the tears welling back up in his eyes. “It’s not Jess’ fault.”
“Drew,” I whispered, wiping away the fallen tears. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not.” He snapped.
Cameron raised his hands, not moving closer. His voice was so soft and warm, he could have singlehandedly brought the summer back to Dearest. “Hold on. Just hold on. Start from the beginning.”
Grace let her arms go. She took a deep breath, carrying that burden for the room and released. “I never pressed you for the truth. I always knew you’d tell me when you were ready, but we’re past that now. Tell us what’s going on.”
I looked at Drew and thought back to that fateful night. I recalled his face, waking me up and the rain. I could smell the rain and the bar and the smell of the garbage that had become my bed. I remembered his sweet little blush and the way my clothes hung from his frame.
I remembered that howl, that cry for help.
Keeping my eyes on Drew’s face, my favorite face, I said, “Almost a year ago, Drew and I were part of the Briarwood Pack. That night, when everything changed for us, Drew was actually at college. It was his first day.”
“You were going to college?” Mark asked, maybe despite himself. With a little blush, he guiltily glanced at Cameron. He retreated inside himself as soon as the words left his lips.
“I never made it to class,” Drew explained with a small shrug and a sad chuckle. Drew caressed my cheek. His hand was chilled. “I was fixing up my dorm, when our Alpha called me. Ezra. He told me that Jess needed me. Back then, my full-time job was taking care of Jess. I took him home from the bar and then...” His nostrils flared as his bottom lip trembled. Bowing his head, he hid his face against my chest. I kissed the top of his head.
“We were just...” I tried to find the words. I never expected to tell this story. I had never said it out loud before and I was out of practice talking about myself. “Everything seemed fine. Normal enough... but then, there was a howl.” My brow narrowed. The history of that night weighed heavy on my shoulders.
“It was a warning cry,” I told directly to Cameron, knowing he’d understand what I meant. “So, I put Drew in a closet and told him not to come out. No matter what...” My mouth had gone dry and it was work to say the rest. “They broke down my door and the smell. The smell hit me first. They were covered in blood.”
“They?” Grace asked. “Who are they?”
“My own fucking pack,” I shook my head, sick from the venom in my words. “More wolves that I imagined took the side of that traitorous fuckhead Jacob Coldwell. You see, they were making house calls. Telling everyone that if they didn’t submit to him, he’d kill them. He killed my alpha, his mate and their children. In their sleep-” When my voice started to raised, I clamped it shut and looked to the ceiling. The familiar anger made my blood boil, made my eyes flicker and my teeth sharpen. The wolf inside of me wanted to fight.
I took a deep breath, steadying myself and grasping for my humanity. I went on, “But that wasn’t the only reason they went to my house. I don’t even think it mattered if I was going to submit or not-”
“And I bet you didn’t,” Cameron stated.
“They were going to kill him. They bragged about killing half the pack already,” Drew said. He couldn’t shake the fear away. He was still skittish and wide-eyed as if the room was going to turn on him any moment. “It was just Jess against all of them and then...”
I nodded. “Then, they found Drew. They knew he’d be with me.”
Drew looked down. “They just wouldn’t stop hitting Jess. He was on the ground and they were just...” Drew flinched from the memory. Shaking his head, he said, “I told Jacob I’d do anything to get them to stop.”
“Drew saved my life,” I said.
Touching his neck, Drew didn’t have to say it for Grace to know. She knew in an instant as she covered her mouth. Drew spoke softly on the verge of crying an ocean into existence. “He said I could save Jess, if I... If I became his mate.”
The whole room tensed up. Cameron stood straighter as Mark grabbed his arm. Liam dropped his hands, as if he could punch Jacob’s lights out here and now. “What?”
“That’s why...” Grace whispered.
“That’s the other wolf smell,” Drew explained. “He marked me, but he didn’t finish the job...”
He couldn’t say it and I’m glad. I would’ve thrown up. I couldn’t even let myself think about it without the entire room tilting. I kissed Drew’s head again and let him rest and I told the rest. “So, they took Drew away and Jacob ordered Lloyd, one of the guys that came tonight to kill me. We fought, but I took him out and Alex. I would’ve done anything to get Drew back.” I paused, wondering if Drew wanted to add, but he was too consumed by the memories, too exhausted from the fear. I just said, “We ran away that night. We had become rogues.”
Cameron cursed, running his hands through his hair. “If you had told me-”
I got a defensive, snapped a little too fast and hot. “We didn’t want to be found. The less people who knew who we were, the better.”
“That’s why you lied about your names,” Grace nodded along, putting all the pieces together. She walked up to us, putting her arms around Drew. She hugged him, closing her eyes and cradling his neck. Drew turned his head to face me, resting on Grace’s shoulder.
“It all makes so much sense now,” Liam muttered, rubbing his face. He looked as frustrated as I felt.
I nodded, pushing Drew’s bangs out of the way. I examined his face, my heavy breathing consuming me. He stared back. Maybe he could read my mind because he looked absolutely heartbroken. I said, “We’ll get out of town tonight, so you don’t have to worry-”
“What? You’re leaving?” Grace raised her voice, stepping back and letting Drew go. “You can’t.”
I shook my head. “We can’t stay, Grace. I’ve already failed to protect Drew once, I can’t do that again. They know we’re here-”
“You don’t know that!”
“They were here, Grace! I can’t- I can’t let anything happen to Drew! We were never supposed to even stay! We were going to leave the second Drew got better-”
“But you didn’t!”
“Don’t leave tonight,” Liam encouraged. “We can’t make you do anything, you don’t want to do, but it’s late and I doubt they’ll be back tonight. Just rest here. We’ll get you some supplies and-”
“I can’t believe this!” Grace threw up her hands.
“And you can at least think of a plan first before you run head first into the snow and the dark and who the hell knows what else? We could at least figure out which way those wolves went.”
“Cameron! Say something!” Grace snapped.
Cameron took a step forward. He met my eyes. “I believe you guys and I understand why you want to run, but you guys can’t run forever. They’ll eventually catch up to you again, but where will you be? With people who would rather sell you out? Or will you be all alone? Stay.” Cameron stated, “Stay and we’ll protect you both.”
I shook my head. “I can’t ask you to do that. This place... I can’t let Jacob get his hands on it. It’s too precious.”
“I agree,” Cameron nodded. “But you guys are a part of this place now. That means you deserve the pack’s protection too.”
“Jacob doesn’t understand reason. He’s pissed that I lived. He’s pissed that he couldn’t get his hands on Drew. He’ll burn this whole place down just to get to us.”
“You know what I think?” Cameron took a deep breath, filling his chest. He walked up, right to me, focused only on me. His Alpha pheromones poured out of him in waves and made my heart pound. “I think you’ve been a rogue much longer than a year. I think you’ve been a loner your whole life and I don’t think you understand what it means to have a pack. When I say I want to protect you, I meant it. We protect our own, Jess. I would sooner let this Jacob guy cut my throat before I let him even breathe in Drew’s direction.”
“We’re family,” Grace said. She just lightly touched my shoulder and the warmth and gentleness of that touch nearly brought me to my knee. My body was full of ghosts, moaning and yearning for an eternal sleep.
I swallowed, looking at Grace’s hand, her face and then back at Cameron. “Drew and I will stay the night,” I said. “I can’t promise more than that. How does that sound?” I asked Drew. Drew stared at Cameron, still afraid, but surprisingly impressed.
Drew nodded. “We’ll stay tonight.”
Grave let out a breath. Slowly, they filed out of the room. Mark lingered. He looked like he didn’t know where to start to sooth Drew. Cameron finally took his hand and led him out of the room. Grace threatened me with the end of the world and fiery hell if I dared to sneak out without saying even goodbye.
She closed the door behind her. It clicked into place. I looked at Drew, who stood closer to the exit and I let out a shuddering breath. His face twisted as he ran back into my arms. I held him tight, pulling him up from the floor, wrapping my arms around him. I scooped him off the ground and took him to bed. We didn’t bother changing clothes. We didn’t even bother with our shoes. I just stroked Drew back, until he exhausted himself and went to sleep.
I didn’t sleep. I stayed alert to every sound inside this Inn, keeping up with every room and every guest and any disturbance at all. I stayed awake, listening for that familiar howl to disturb the night.