Morning light filtered in through the blinds the next morning as I stretched and rolled over, feeling well rested. Memories of the day before came back to me and I smiled to myself.
Noticing I was alone in the bed and it was past time to get up, I threw back the covers and, not bothering with the robe, headed for the bathroom. I came out clean and refreshed. With no instruction either way, I assumed I was going to be working with James that day. Grabbing some of my new clothes which Laura had kindly washed and folded for me when I’d been with James the previous afternoon, I pulled on some work-out gear, stepped into my runners and headed for the kitchen. As I was walking down the hall I heard the sound of quiet voices conversing a second before I passed the archway to the lounge room. I paused a moment, peeking my head around the doorway briefly to take in the scene before pulling back and unabashedly eavesdropping.
Gabe and James were standing side by side in almost identical positions, arms across their chests, looking down at the floor.
“We need to address this situation, Gabe. This total communication silence isn’t gonna fly much longer with the pack. We have them asking questions for us, but we’re not giving them answers in return.”
Gabe grunted. “They don’t need to know anything just yet. They just have to trust that I’m acting in their best interests.”
“See, bro, that’s the thing. You’re a new alpha, at least to a lot of the older members of the pack, who were used to your dad. You’re untested, haven’t had a chance to prove yourself. In the day to day things, sure, most know you’re a decent guy and will act in the best interest of us all. But this is much more than settling a few fights.”
Gabe response was intense, challenging. “What, you think the best way to establish my dominance is to give in to popular demand and explain every move I make? Is that what you want?”
James’s tone turned placating. “Whoa, hey, this is not about me or what I want. I’m on your side, remember? But part of my job is being your link to the pack. And as your second, I’m telling you that there are some in the pack who want to cause trouble and may take this opportunity to stir things up. There are rumors floating around and without us countering them with fact, those rumors could create problems.”
What rumors were they talking about? Was I being completely self-centered to think they were about me? Figuring there was only one way to find out, I stepped forward to stand in the doorway.
The men looked up when I appeared and James smiled a good morning. Gabe went one giant step further. Uncrossing his arms, he stalked forward till he reached me, grabbing my hands in his. He guided my arms up behind his neck then traced his hands down my arms and sides till they rested on my hips. Pulling me forward till we touched neck to knees, his arms slipped around my waist to keep me tight and bent his head to take my lips with his.
The kiss was intense, driven more by emotion than passion. For a good two minutes, we stood there, body to body, kissing softly. Finally, Gabe pulled back, his smile intimate, full of knowledge. All thoughts I’d had before I walked into the room were completely swept away by the force of my reaction to the man holding me.
“Morning,” he said softly.
“Yeah,” I managed.
“Are you two done sucking face now?” James’s voice cut in, a harsh reminder of reality and I jerked back as far as Gabe’s possessive grip allowed.
“Get used to it,” said Gabe, not looking at his friend.
“Great,” James muttered, shaking his head in mock disgust.
Now that I had my wits back, I was able to think. “What were you two talking about just now?”
“Nothing,” they both said at the same time. Raising my eyebrow, I looked at Gabe, still in his arms, waiting for him to tell me the truth.
Blowing a breath out and rolling his eyes, Gabe gave in.
“Fine,” he said grumpily. “Douglas and Melanie have been trying to stir trouble in the pack.”
Gabe and James both looked at me as if the explanation was enough. I started at them blankly in return. When it became apparent they weren’t going to go into it any further, I figured it was up to me to drag the info out of them.
Gabe and James exchanged an exasperated glance.
“Douglas. You know, the giant redneck who called you an abomination?” Gabe raised his eyebrows, eyes wide, waiting for recognition to hit.
“And Melanie,” James interjected, taking a step forward to stand beside us so I wasn’t peering at him over Gabe’s shoulder. “The woman you met yesterday and were a hair’s breadth away from eviscerating?”
Well, that was a gross overstatement. Sure, I’d felt compelled to put her in her place, but it wouldn’t have gotten bloody Much.
The mention of the two pack members I’d met so far made me realize I hadn’t exactly been making a lot of fans in my short stay here. The thought didn’t bother me
“Oh, them,” I said dismissively, stepping back out of Gabe’s arms. Frankly as comfortable as I was, it was getting a bit weird to be having a three-way conversation in that position. His arms tightened for just a moment before he let me go and even then, he grabbed one of my hands, lacing his fingers through mine as if to hold me by his side. In any other circumstance, that could be a foreboding warning about an obsessively clingy personality, but my instincts told me this wasn’t the case, and truthfully, I was okay with the contact. There was no denying that I found Gabe reassuring. So far I wasn’t liking what happened to me when I was feeling uncomfortable, so I’d take what I could get and worry about crazy stalker vibes later.
The guys rolled their eyes at my unconcerned response, prompting me to give them the stink eye.
“Yeah, them,” said James, heavy on the sarcasm.
A flick of my free hand told them how little I thought of the pests. “Someone should put them in their place then.” Look at me getting all aggressive and alpha.
Now that I was aware something had changed in me, I became aware of subtle differences in my body and persona. For example, I was feeling a power and importance that I had no entitlement too. A part of me wanted Douglas and Melanie in front of me so they could be punished for trying to start shit. And I definitely wanted to be inflicting the punishment.
Considering one was a six foot plus behemoth filled with hatred and rage, and the other was a tacky bitchy, but also fully fledged werewolf, this was not what you would exactly call a normal reaction.
Looking up at Gabe, I noticed he was watching me with a concerned expression. “What?” I asked defensively.
The expression on his face showed me he was weighing his words before he spoke, which meant there was a good chance I wasn’t going to like what came next. James apparently had no concern for my feelings, because he just opened his mouth and blurted out what they were both thinking.
“Looks like your aggression’s increasing.”
“So?” My belligerent response kind of proved his statement.
“So,” he drawled out as if speaking to a child, “With that smart ass brain of yours, we’re concerned that your mouth’s writing checks your body can’t cash.”
Scrunching my eyes and rubbing my free hand over my face, I turned to Gabe. “Translation please?”
In a diplomatic tone, Gabe explained. “You seem to be developing a very alpha personality. In a pack, you have to back up your personality with strength. In other words, you can feel as alpha as you want, but if you don’t have the skills or strength to back it up, then you stay at the bottom until you prove otherwise. You’re very new to this form and we have no idea what your capabilities are or how you’d match up against a fully changed Lycan. It seems like you’re still developing and growing into your new self. We’re worried that until you fully understand and control whatever weapons you have, you might accidentally start a power struggle that you can’t win right now.”
My first reaction was anger. Who are they to suggest I was weak? My fingers tightened on Gabe’s hands and he gave a surprised wince, glancing down at our joined hands. Releasing him and stepping back, I threw my hands up as if to ward him off, hanging my head and closing my eyes, trying to control the hot rush of anger. My fingertips began to tingle. It was alarming how little provocation was needed for me to start freaking out.
In the end, it was my own reaction that convinced me that they were right. Pulling in a deep breath, I looked back at them once again. “Are Red-neck and Bimbette an immediate threat?”
James snorted and Gabe smiled slightly. “Not right away. They’ve got influence in their own little circles but most of the pack either only tolerate them or outright hate them. But we can’t let it go too long otherwise it’ll undermine our position.”
“Well then,” I said, looking at James. “Looks like we get back to training so my body can back up my smart ass mouth.” Turning, I stalked out of the room, as James winced at my words.
“I’m probably going to pay for that later,” James said, in an aside to Gabe. With my back safely towards the men, I let my smile cross my face at his words. Even without a mirror, I could tell you that it wasn’t a nice smile.
My breath left my body in a whoosh as my back hit the mat for the umpteenth time and I lay there for a moment, absorbing the pain and trying to breathe again. James, the bastard, stood over me, not even winded.
The issue of my determination was never in question. If I’d been able to get my hands on the man, he’d be hurting just as much as me right now. Unfortunately, that was just the problem. I couldn’t get past his guard.
“Come on princess, it’s not the time for napping,” James taunted, staying just out of my reach. He’d taken to calling my demeaning nicknames as he systematically kicked my ass, either to incite my rage or to help me learn to ignore things like that in a real fight and keep my cool, hell maybe both. Shit, he could’ve been doing it purely to be annoying, who knew. All I could tell you was that I was getting mighty sick of it.
Feigning injury, I pretended to try and get my breath back, needing a moment to recover. When I didn’t respond to his taunt, he came closer, a look of mild concern on his face.
“Hey, are you o-“
Before he could get the rest of the words out, I kicked my legs out to the side, sweeping his ankles and felling James like a mighty oak. Hitting the mat with a grunt of his own, I scrambled to my knees before he had time to recover. It wasn’t an elegant move, but it worked and in a second I was crouched above him, one knee in his solar plexus and the other pinning down the arm closest to me. My hands wrapped around his throat, slowly applying pressure and my face lowered to his, my teeth bared as a low growl rumbled from my throat.
“Good,” came his strangled voice as his face turned red. “Okay,” he gasped when I failed to let go. Watching him dispassionately, I looked him dead in the eyes as I slowly increased the pressure of my hands. James started to struggle, raising his free hand up to grab my wrist and bringing his legs up to try and kick at my side, bucking his body, attempting to knock me loose.
But I had both the leverage and the strength on my side and I grimly held on, so his struggles were in vain. Only when his face was a brilliant shade of vermillion and his eyes started rolling back in his head, did I let go, stepping back and away, out of his reach, watching as he rolled to his side, gasping and coughing, trying to catch his breath.
Prone on the mat, one elbow bracing himself, the other hand holding his throat, he watched me warily. I wasn’t fooled. He seemed incapacitated at that moment and I didn’t doubt for a second he was feeling the effects my previous move, but I instinctively knew that James was still ready to fight.
I had no desire to turn this into a grudge match. I’d proven my point. We eyed each other from across the distance and I felt a fundamental shift in our relationship. I didn’t know what It was and couldn’t tell you what it meant, only that something changed between us at that moment.
“Hey guys, I’ve made some lunch.” Laura’s voice preceded her into the room, but she stopped abruptly as she took in the scene. James quickly got to his feet, dropping his hand and standing straight, but Laura had already seen. She chose to be the bigger person though and pretend that nothing was amiss.
“I made sandwiches if you want some.”
“Sure,” I said easily. “I could eat.” We’d been practicing for hours, first cardio, then floor work. After lunch, James planned a weight circuit and them some more floor work.
“Yeah,” James said, a slight croak in his voice. “Sounds good.”
“Great,” said Laura brightly and left the room, heading back upstairs. I followed behind, giving James a wide berth, keeping my eye on him.
Honestly, I hadn’t planned what had happened, reacting instinctively to the situation. However, I wasn’t sorry for my actions. The problem was, I had no idea how James was going to react. Sure he acted like a fool most of the time, but I’d already figured out his laid back, party guy demeanor was mostly a ruse to hide the predator he truly was.
In my time spent in the house, my observation was that Gabe was a true leader, a warrior but also a diplomat, the balance needed to be effective when in charge. James, though, he was all warrior and I was pretty sure I could add ruthless to the description as well.
Entering the kitchen, I noticed Laura was hovering by the door, waiting for me. After throwing a quick glance over my shoulder, she held up her hand for a high five apparently celebrating my success in taking James down a peg. Deciding to take the approval and hug the victory close, minor though it was, I grinned and high fived her back. By the time James walked in the door, I was seated in my usual seat at the table, trying to look as innocent as possible. Somehow, I don’t think I succeeded very well.
Taking the seat across from me, James wouldn’t meet my gaze and was uncharacteristically quiet as Laura placed the food on the table in front of us, murmuring his thanks.
“Anyone want a drink,” Laura asked.
“Please,” I said with feeling, desperate for something. I’d taken water with me that morning but had run out, so I made a mental note to take more with me that afternoon. James may be an ass while training, but he definitely made me work hard.
Gabe came in, a mobile phone to his ear, finishing up what sounded like a business call. Drawing up next to me, he dropped a kiss on top of my head and took his seat at the head of the table.
“Yeah, I know what she said, but the figures say otherwise. Look, the simple fact is she was the only one with authorized access to those accounts. So you have one of two problems. One, she’s shifting the funds, in which case she’s lying to you. Or two, someone else somehow got access and is shifting the funds, which means you have either a hacker or a dishonest employee. I realize the money is all there now, but I assure you, it wasn’t two weeks ago. You hired me to prove misappropriation, I’ve supplied the evidence. How you proceed is up to you.” There was silence as the person on the other end of the line spoke and Gabe agreed a few times before ending the call.
Sighing, he leaned back in the chair and the tension dropped out of his shoulders.
“Another tough day with the numbers,” I asked with false innocence.
“Shut it,” he said with fake umbrage and we smiled at each other. Laura placed a glass of juice in front of me and took her seat next to James. Gabe glanced between James and I, before focusing on James. I followed Gabe’s gaze to the angry red marks around his neck, already starting to fade.
“Everything okay?” Gabe asked.
“Yup,” said James shortly.
“Anything you want to share?” he tried again.
James just looked at me. Apparently, the ball was in my court.
“Nope,” I said shaking my head. “I just made my point, is all.”
Gabe’s eyes shot between us once again. When I didn’t elaborate, he prompted me. “What point?”
Looking James dead in the eyes, I answered Gabe’s question but directed my words at the man across from me.
“I’m untrained. Not weak,” I said steadily and James gave an almost imperceptible nod to show he’d received my message loud and clear.
“Right,” Gabe drew out the words, seemingly not willing to push the matter further, but clearly understanding more had happened than was being said.
The rest of lunch was pretty uneventful and we kept the conversation light, Laura telling us about the movie she’d seen the night before. It was a comedy and her clever recall of the movie added some much-needed levity to the room. By the end, even James was back to his normal self, though there was some emotion lurking at the back of his eyes when he looked at me, something I couldn’t name.
Lunch wrapped up and we all made a move to get back to our day. I realized that I still had no idea what it was that Laura did during the day, other than preparing the food and looking after the house. I made a mental note to ask her that night.
“Looks like I’m finished this job, so I’m free this afternoon,” said Gabe as he placed his hand over mine resting on the table. He wasn’t kidding about being touchy-feely. Luckily, I liked it.
James gave Gabe an unreadable look. “We’re going to do some weights. You’re starting to look a little soft there buddy, why don’t you come join us? I promise to take it easy on you.”
Considering I’d seen every inch of Gabe the night before and knew for a fact there wasn’t an ounce of softness anywhere on that body, I had to roll my eyes at his poor attempt at subtlety. Rather than make a big thing of it, I let it pass. James wanted Gabe with us that afternoon for a reason and I doubted it was because he was scared for his safety. I’d find out soon enough what was going through his brain.
“I’m sorry, all I heard was ‘blah, blah, blah, I’m a weakling’.”
Shaking my head at their male posturing, I pushed away from the table to get some more water for the afternoon session.
I’d assumed that we’d be going back to the exercise room in the house that we’d previously used for our weights and cardio, so was surprised when Gabe came back from getting changed into workout clothes, jangling his keys.
“Are we going somewhere?” I asked.
Gabe, coming to stand next to me, draping his arm around my shoulders, pulling me to his side.
“Yeah, I can’t properly humiliate James with my mighty strength, using the puny weights we have here. We need bigger weights,” came the boasting response.
Tilting my head, I studied him. “Weren’t you more somber and reserved when I first got here?” I asked.
“Welcome to the family,” called Laura from the other room.
Gabe grinned and gave me a quick, thorough kiss. Then we headed for the door and the car to head on to our mystery location.
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