The halls of the Dearest Inn were quieter than usual. Today, the kitchens were closed, and the dining room was deserted. A few guests wandered here or there, but Cameron sent a message to all the wolves to stay inside and steer clear from unwanted visitors. Cameron told them that they came for Jess and Drew and it was a pack’s job to protect their own.
Reiko and Athena called, asking if we needed to be hidden.
Reiko even asked if she could help with the fight.
Cameron told her, “Just be ready if a wolf you don’t recognize knocks on your door. Make sure your doors are locked, but if they enter, feel free to fuck them up.”
"Cameron,” Mark snapped, smacking his mate across the arm as soon as the words left his lips. He snatched the phone and added, shooting Cameron the kind of glare that caused a nasty sun burn. “Mom, just be careful.”
Jess chuckled and it was funny, but I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t make myself smile. My heart shuddered hard enough to make my fingers tremble, so I had my arms tightly crossed to keep all these nerves contained. I didn’t want to contaminate the others with my doom and gloom.
This plan had to work.
We spent all night coming up with a plan and then, gathered inside the main lobby together. We were all together: Mark, Cameron, Liam, Grace, Dominic and even Ryan. Ryan brought me a bunch of his clothes to hide some of my smell, something that would at least dull the fragrance. Liam took Mia and Emily outside of Dearest, to their grandmother’s house.
Mia wouldn’t leave until Jess promised they’d see each other again.
My chest clenched. He needed to promise me the same thing. It sometimes scared me knowing the great lengths Jess would go to make sure I stayed safe. I really didn’t want to make him prove it. Not today. Not again. Not like the first time.
Jess’ fingers slipped over my arm and discovered my hand, rescuing my fingers from the death grip between my side and arm. He held my hand with a squeeze, bringing my fingers up to his lips. Closing his eyes, he kissed my ring finger and the fading black line in prayer.
“I’m fine,” I lied, a crack in my voice high enough to break glass. Even a blind man could see through my act, so I just lied more and said, “Really. Totally fine. Can’t wait to get started.” Jess’ hard stare did not waver. He stuck with that worried mate look, the one that expected me to just explode at any moment. I got that stare a lot.
“You’re allowed to be nervous,” Jess whispered between only us. This wasn’t helping as much as he thought. Instead, Jess made my legs weak. A little squirmy feeling wormed through my chest. I forgot what it was like to not feel any worry at all and to just be normal.
“Liam,” Cameron looked to him. “Are you ready?”
Liam let out a shuddering sigh and reached for his phone in his back pocket. “Let’s just get this over with,” he mumbled. During the strategizing meeting, Liam really tried to pawn this job on Grace, but it had to be him. Alex and Lloyd gave him their number.
No one else.
Liam dialed the number and the ring filled the whole lobby area, sending vibrations through the air. My heart sunk and I gripped Jess’ hand tighter.
Cameron started to pace around Liam, rubbing his chin. No one could keep their eyes off Liam, except Mark. Mark grabbed Cameron’s arm and pulled, placing Cameron in the spot beside him. Cameron went down like a ton of bricks with a gruff sigh. He bent over, rubbing his face over and over.
“Hello?” Someone answered on the other side of phone and Cameron popped back up. The whole room collectively tensed, holding our breath.
Liam eyed us before answering. “Hello. This is Liam Bennett from the Dearest Inn...”
“Ah, yes,” Alex, I realized, answered. My skin crawled, hearing his voice again. He asked, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Well...” Liam swept the room again and threw his free hand up, not really the actor of the group. He said, “Those guys you were talking about uh, the tall one and the little one, they came. Just like you thought they would.”
“Oh man, Liam, you’ve just made my day. Hold tight. We’ll come back by and pick them up-”
“Actually, I told my Alpha first and-”
“You did, huh?” He echoed with an edge of annoyance. He must not have planned for that. He must have wanted to avoid adding another Alpha to the mix.
Liam swallowed before he spoke again. “Yeah. He wants a meeting with your Alpha before he gives your boys up-”
Cameron motioned Liam for the phone and Liam gladly gave it up. Dragging himself to the couch, he melted at Grace’s side. She patted his back for his job well done as he dropped his head in his hands. This made her chuckle a little. She kissed the side of his head.
“Listen,” Cameron started off, guns blazing. He used his loud/important voice as if he was reciting an announcement to more than just Alex on the phone, but to a whole crowd of wolves. He spoke like he knew he was better, like he was aware of how amazing he was. Guys like this, I wanted to punch in the mouth during high school.
This was the point.
“I’m not going to waste my breath for very long, so make sure you pay attention. I know your pack and I know how far you’ve gone to find these two wolves, so I’m going to expect more of a reward than the chump change you were offering.”
“Who-” Alex huffed. “Who do you think you are?”
“If your Alpha Jake Cowbell or whatever can’t make time for a meeting with me, then I guess I can’t hold your boys any longer.”
Cameron sighed obnoxiously loud. “And who’s to say if I’ll even pay attention which way they go. So, what I’m really asking is how much are these wolves worth to you?” He asked boldly, glancing at us and I was too frozen to even give him an encouraging smile. Jess just gave a thumbs up. “Call Liam back within an hour with a number that I like, and then we’ll set up a meeting at my earliest convenience.” The second the last word left his lips Cameron canceled the call.
Cameron tossed the phone on the couch like it was on fire. “Ugh, that was rough.” He shook his body out, shaking off the nerves and the persona. He flipped the switch almost too easily. “How did I do?” He asked us.
“You’re too good at that,” Jess made a face, which made it clear that if the two of them would not be friends in high school. The whole conversation made the room reek of high school glory days and jock. I could close my eyes and perfectly picture Jess shoving Cameron in the halls of Briarwood High School just to start something, just to create some action on a boring Monday morning. They would’ve met the same way as they did in real life with fists flying.
“Is this plan really going to work?” I asked, squeezing Jess’ hand.
Cameron nodded. “That should’ve pissed him off enough to make him a little less careful. Sometimes being a young Alpha has its perks. This Jacob guy is sure to underestimate me and I’ll make sure he regrets that.”
“You can’t underestimate him back,” Mark warned. Several wrinkles lived in the middle of his forehead for the past day. He stayed glued to Cameron’s side longer than I had ever seen. If he could’ve put a leash around Cameron, I had the feeling he would.
“We won’t,” Cameron assured his mate, but Mark narrowed his eyes as if Cameron just said something ghastly for shock and awe. I tried dissecting that look, wishing I could read Mark’s mind. Cameron didn’t seem to notice. He just kept talking, “You and I are going to keep him busy. We’ll use our powers of driving each other crazy to manipulate Jacob-”
“You keep saying we,” Mark said.
“Well, yeah. I want you there beside me,” Cameron reached for Mark’s arms, but like magnets, Mark took a full step back. The tension in the room thickened and I suddenly felt everyone else in the room should leave. “I need you to be there to back me up. I know it’s a lot to ask-”
Mark guffawed, laughing right in Cameron’s face. He shook his head, rolling his eyes to the sky. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Ask? When have you ever cared about my opinion? When have you ever considered what I thought?”
“Have you lost it?” Cameron held his arms out. If he had a white flag, he’d wave it. “What you say matters to me more than anything. Mark, if you told me to jump off a cliff, I would. Even if the Moon Goddess begged me not to, I’d just give her a quick salute and jump-”
“I don’t want you to jump off a cliff, Cameron!”
“Then, what do you want from me? What can I do to get you to stay with me? Staye here, by my side. How else do you want to punish me until you’re satisfied. Just tell me!”
“If it mattered what I had to say, you wouldn’t have left me here! You wouldn’t have just abandoned me without saying anything-” Mark’s voice cracked and he reared back, tears flooding the corners of his dark eyes. He remembered the rest of the room, burning to a crisp from his rosy blush. For Mark, my heart broke in two.
“Mark,” Cameron said, spooking his mate.
Mark dashed out of the room with his shoulders hunched down to make himself small. Cameron chased after him, calling his name again and Grace jumped to her feet. She looked at us, “Come on. I’m not missing this.”
“Shouldn’t we give them privacy?” I asked, only for my concern to fall on deaf ears.
“Are you kidding me?” Grace rolled her eyes, leading the charge towards the lobby. Jess just snickered, standing and yanking me from my seat. So, Ryan could join, Dominic threw him over his shoulder and lagged behind the group. We all hurried after the fighting mates and caught Mark walking out into the snow. No shoes. His flushed face kept him warm.
Jess and I crowded one of the windows looking over the porch. With a grunt, Jess shoved the window open, letting a gust of wind and snow infiltrate the Inn. Jess leaned around me, bundling me up in his arms like a blanket. A small smile crept over my lips and I couldn’t help myself, I kissed his cheek.
“Mark, wait!” Cameron stood just above the top step and shouted out at Mark, stopping him in his tracks. Mark kept his back turned, his shoulders still boxy and uncomfortable. His fists stayed clenched by his side as Cameron said, “You’ve been storing that one, haven’t you, Mark? Listen to me, I’m sorry I left without saying goodbye. I just couldn’t bare to do it-”
“God!” Mark scowled at the empty grayish sky and shook his head. “It’s so frustrating.” He whipped around. “You don’t get it! My whole life, I wanted to be your equal...” His breathing became labored. His words formed on a shaky foundation. Mark, I realize was in pain. He has always been in pain. Since I’ve known him. “... I wanted to be worthy enough to be your mate and I thought I finally got what I wanted. I had destiny on my side,” he smiled proudly, but his eyes weren’t smiling.
Cameron dropped to the next step.
Mark took a deep breath and then, admitted in such a small fragile voice, “Then, you left. You left me here, which just proves that I need you way more than you have ever needed me. Knowing that, I have to protect myself because if I get left behind again, I’m not going to be to recover. I can’t mourn you twice.”
“I will never stop regretting that,” Cameron stated as a fact, his hand directed outward and firm. “I do need you. I’m a mess without you. I left because the whole pack was counting on me and I...”
He went down another step. He shook his head, getting choked up. Somehow, Cameron seemed so incredibly young like he probably did when they only called each other friends in high school. “I didn’t want to let you down, like I always did, like I guess, I’m still doing. Disappointing you is my worst fear and I without realizing it...”
They couldn’t help it.
They couldn’t fight it.
Mark matched every step Cameron made, causing the space between them to disappear. I could practically see pieces of the wall between them come crashing to the ground. “When the Silva family was helping me and Eric Silva was training me, I spent every day picturing you there...” Cameron walked right up to Mark, but without touching him. His voice stayed low. I could just barely make out what he was saying. “I couldn’t sleep, craving your voice and your face. Sometimes, I pretended to have conversations with you. I wanted to go back sooner...”
Cameron insisted, but his voice cracked and his confidence was shaken. Mark’s brow twitched, his eyes studying every inch of Cameron’s slumped shoulders and his bowed head. Mark rubbed his hands, keeping them to himself, but they itched to reach out and move Cameron’s blonde bangs.
Cameron shook his head. “...but I couldn’t come back empty handed. I couldn’t let it all be for nothing.”
“Cameron,” Mark finally spoke, his voice soft. “I don’t want you to regret leaving...” This made Cameron’s head pop back up. It was the sign of the revelation Mark always wanted him to figure out. Mark smiled sadly and shrugged. “You needed to go, but...” Mark’s long boney fingers touched the edges of Cameron’s jaw. He tilted his head soaking in Cameron’s beautiful face. “I would’ve gone with you. I would run away with you, anywhere. I prayed to the Moon Goddess to let me have you. So, don’t leave me behind ever again. Take me with you. Wherever you go, let me go too.”
I glanced up at Jess. That all sounded like the kind of thing we could understand. With the tips of my fingers, I turned Jess’ head. My eyes flickered to his lips and I smiled a little at the butterflies fluttering around my stomach. Jess read my mind, mirroring my smile as he leaned down to press his lips against mine. His hand gently caressed my jaw as his fingers made their way to my ear. Jess rubbed my earlobe, sending a shiver across my body.
“I really am such an idiot,” Cameron chuckled. He laid his hand on top of Mark’s that encased his face and nodded. “I promise, I am never leaving your side again, but you can’t leave mine either.” Cameron grinned and put his arms around Mark’s waist. He leaned in close. “So please,” he begged. “Can I come home?”
Mark blinked back the tears forming in his eyes, which made them sparkle. He nodded, locking his arms around Cameron’s neck as Cameron pulled him closer and held him steady. They kissed the way flowers bloomed, slowly and growing more beautiful by the second.
It started with Grace. She clapped her hands together and I joined in as the rest of group trickled in with their cheers. Cameron and Mark broke apart, suddenly remembering we all even existed.
“Are you done now?” Grace called out and Mark’s face deepened into a glare. Grace raised her hands in defense. “Listen! No one is happier than me to finally get rid of Cameron.” She leaned away from the door and whispered to me, “I can get back to all my shenanigans, but!” She shouted at the boys outside, “Can we go back inside and get back to business? It’s cold!”