IV. THE CHOICE
This should've been a good thing.
It was much easier to follow a plan when the biggest wrench in it had disappeared. But Isla’s curious heart would not rest. As much as she didn’t want the answer, she needed a confirmation.
She had to know if Fate—that fickle, fickle bitch—had really brought her mate to her at the absolute worst possible time.
She had to find Kai, speak to him and decipher whatever the hell was going on, and then she could move on from there.
“Actually, can you give me a moment?” She stepped back from Eli and jerked her thumb behind her. “Ladies’ room.”
The General put his hands behind his back, standing tall and proper, the muscle in his jaw tensing, before he nodded. “Of course.”
“Great,” Isla said, hoping she hadn’t weaseled into the poor graces of her future commander, before quickly spinning on her heels and descending into the crowd.
In the middle of the room, she paused and tried to pull on all of her senses. They were much better when she shifted, but her going full-wolf in the middle of a dance floor would likely be concerning. So instead, she closed her eyes and sought out that tether again.
Come on, where the hell are you?
She couldn’t feel him at all. Of course, when she wanted to.
Going with her gut, she opened her eyes and started weaving her way through the bodies, trying to keep her pace—and heartbeat—even. This room was full of the most powerful wolves of the Realm—influential leaders, fearsome Warriors, steadfast Guards—if she presented any remote threat, made it seem like anything was wrong, the whole room would erupt in chaos and despite her miniscule clout, there would be no hesitation to neutralize her.
Her steady steps, however, gradually transformed into a run as she turned to go down the hallway she’d walked just hours before, her dress billowing behind her. She threw herself against the heavy door to the terrace, the glass rattling and creaking as it flew open. Her heels clicked against the patio with finality as she crossed outside. Her eyes were keen on the shadows, remembering what Kai had alluded to before, but the darkness was barren.
“Where are you?” She whispered into the wind through gritted teeth, taking a few more steps along the stones before coming to an abrupt stop.
She felt him now.
Isla rushed to the furthest side of the banister and found Kai down below in the gardens, pacing. He’d taken off his coat, left it thrown on one of the stairs. Now he was only in his fitted tunic, sleeves rolled up high to reveal the muscles of his arms, the black ink of his own lumerosi tattoos snaking along them. She could see him tense, shadows dancing with the moonlight on his amber skin, as he ran a hand agitatedly over his hair.
She gulped, gathering her gall before calling out to him, “Alpha Kai!” It was the first time she’d said his name. It felt odd coming out of her mouth.
He didn’t answer. Didn’t even flinch or look in her direction. Either he’d known she was there from the beginning, gone deaf, or was so lost in his mind he’d missed it. She moved from her spot and took to the stairs, going down them so quickly she nearly fell over.
When her feet hit the grass below, he glanced at her and then away again, up at the sky, then forward. There had been a mix of emotions in his stare—anger and some type of bitterness laced with that coolness that he’d had when they’d first met.
Isla stayed silent for a few more seconds, taking him in before she dug herself into a hole. He was undeniably handsome and better formed than she imagined now that she could really see him without his overcoat.
It seemed wrong. How could Fate think that this was who she was meant to be with?
The thought of turning around and forgetting her mission crept into her mind, but she pushed it away quickly. Mouth becoming dry, she swallowed again, and despite the fact one was never to question an Alpha, lest one of his Council, she couldn’t hold back. Not anymore.
Here goes nothing.
“What are you doing out here?” A simple start. Easier than just jumping in blurting, I think you’re my mate.
She choked on her inhale when Kai stopped and turned to her fully.
He was so. . . focused, his eyes drinking in every last drop of her. Like he was stripping her down where she stood.
Isla bristled, struggling to temper the spark that his stare ignited, threatening to raise wildfire again. Goddess, did he look beautiful under the moonlight, the glow and darkness highlighting all of his finely sculpted edges. She worked hard to keep herself planted in her safe spot at a distance and wondered desperately what was going through his head.
Before she’d reached the point of impatience to repeat her question, Kai suddenly looked away and went back to his pacing. His fists were clenched at his sides. “If I was in that Hall for one more second I was going to lose my mind, kill that General and every man who has so much as looked at you tonight.”
Isla felt that throbbing deep at her core again. It was something about the anger—about the jealousy—that made the pull stronger. The unbridled emotions fueling a power within him that was almost like a beacon to her, that forged and reinforced the tether to her soul meant to bring her close.
She was caught between being inexplicably aroused, terrified, and overwhelmed.
She hesitated before asking, “So. . . you feel it too?”
Kai laughed, not of happiness, but of disbelief and aggravation. “It’s burning me alive.”
Isla took that as her confirmation, and it nearly took the wind out of her. He’d experienced it all too. The fire, the hunger, the draw—it was mutual. They were. . .
“So this is it?” Isla’s voice had gone high in surprise, her composure dwindling. “Us. We’re. . . mates? You and me.”
It was as if everything made sense, but absolutely nothing at the same time.
Just yesterday she and the other members of her Pack had made the long journey from Io and to Callisto, her mind filled with visions of the Hunt, the celebrations after her victory, receiving her lumerosi, her future journeys through the Packs with her fellow Warriors. She had it all figured out. But now, this man, this Alpha, who had come into her life out of nowhere, could easily destroy all of it. With one bite, one mark, her mind would be lost and for the rest of time, including tomorrow, she’d be fighting for two lives. Have her own in someone else’s hands. Someone who she didn’t even know from a hole in the wall.
She had to hold back her own laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Now, Isla herself began to pace agitated circles on the greenery. Fate had to have been cackling down at what she’d orchestrated, as the two mates mimicked each other unintentionally, dancing around her will.
“My mate. I actually found my destined mate, and it’s an Alpha,” Isla said in a breath, before throwing her arms out in exasperation. “You’re my mate, and you—you don’t even know my name, forget knowing me, and I know barely anything about you. How—how does this. . .”
She was just thinking out loud, blabbering incessantly about the nonsensical traditions, truths, and the long-standing rules of life like he wasn’t even there. She’d give her frenzy a pass in this moment though. Everything had just flipped upside down and was on the brink of becoming even more of a disaster.
In her peripheral, she realized Kai had stopped moving, and she slowed to a halt herself. She turned and found that familiar lazy smirk of his that she hadn’t been sure if she wanted to slap off his face or kiss earlier. He seemed less annoyed now, and almost amused by her franticness.
She was thrilled to provide some entertainment.
“What?” she snapped, all rules of proper engagement out the window.
His half-smile became a full-on grin. “You should know your family and Pack members speak very highly of you, Isla. Especially the Imperial Heir.”
She blinked at him, taking in his counter to her claim. Hearing her name off his lips sent an involuntary shiver down her spine. “You spoke to my family about me?”
“Like you said, I don’t know you, and I wanted to learn something about the woman who was meant to become my mate,” he explained. “They’re very proud of you and what you’re about to accomplish.”
She didn’t have the capacity to absorb the inspiring words. “You didn’t tell them, did you?”
Kai shook his head.
She let out a sigh of relief, but as she replayed what he’d said, caught onto the past tense. The woman who was meant to become his mate.
Looking from her feet to his, hers then his, it dawned on her that he was equally keeping his distance as she was.
Her face scrunched into a scowl in spite of herself.
What the hell?
She’d heard all the stories of Alphas who’d laid their claims on their mates—Chosen or by Fate—without a second thought, bestowing that fateful bite without any consent. A mark that deterred all other wolves and potential suitors because no one would dare challenge him. The chauvinistic action made her want to punch them in the throat.
But still, here she was—and there she had been earlier—right in front of Kai, neck open and exposed, his legitimate destined mate, yet he made no reach. Not an attempt.
As hypocritical as it may have been, she was pissed.
“Why haven’t you done anything yet?” she asked, before she could stop herself. “Is that why you didn’t tell me you were an Alpha when we met? Were you vetting me somehow?” She’d lost control of her speech, but she felt like this was a moment that it was forgiven. “I know you don’t know me well, but. . . am I not good enough for you or something? Because certainly, Alpha, I can assure you—”
Kai had been building up to a chuckle as she went on her rant, but eventually cut her off.
“You’re going in the Hunt tomorrow,” he said. A statement, not a question, but an answer was expected.
“You want to be a Warrior.”
“Yes, but what does that—”
Kai took a few steps forward, effectively silencing her. “Tell me—how can you be a Warrior and a queen?”
Isla’s mind was a muddled mess. She could barely comprehend what he’d said. The question lingered in the air as Kai began pacing a languid circle around her, arms behind his back. Regal, but also, almost, predatory. The movement was even; he didn’t dare inch any closer.
His voice was low, and his speech smooth. It reverberated deep into those untapped parts of her being. “You and I both know that the second I touch you, we’re not going to make it back to our rooms, or even back inside that building. We’re going to seal our fate right here on this grass, on those stairs, probably even amongst those orchids—again and again and again—until we don’t know where one of us ends and the other begins. And then we’re entwined, we’re bound. No others. No choices. You leave your family, become my Luna, bound to my Pack, to me, forever. Is that what you want?”
It took a second for Isla to register his question, her mind drunk on his words, on the picture he’d painted, on the thought of her naked body against his, his lips on every inch of her skin, as he ravaged and had her crying out under the moonlight. It would be more than just mind-blowing sex with a man she barely knew. There would be something else lurking there. A connection, an intensity, a burn so deep and divine, that it would have her begging, despite being completely loveless. She would never know the wonders of that bond with any other person. Never. This was her other half.
She could take him, she naively thought for a moment, blinded by the lust. Maybe after she’d gotten to know him, in time, at his simplest. . .
But there was no “simple” when it came to an Alpha.
He’d said it himself, she would be not only bound to him, but bound to his Pack. She’d have to leave her home and family forever. And she would be a queen.
She may have had the poise of a lady—under normal circumstances when she wasn’t confronted by the curveball of her destined mate the night before she was to face potential death—the spirit of a warrior, but not the true grace of a Luna. She’d seen what the role demanded, and that wasn’t even what lurked behind closed doors. She didn’t fit the mold. She didn’t want to be tied down and confined within walls and strict rules.
Kai stopped in her eye-line and stared down at her, still wearing his sly smile. She was wondering if he could sense what he’d aroused. “You’re allowed to say no.”
Isla took a deep breath and shook her head, not in any agreement, but to clear it. All of this was overwhelming and confusing. Was he actually giving her an option to reject him? Was that even allowed with an Alpha? Or was he rejecting her?
“Why—why give me an option?” she asked, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “There’s a reason we’re destined. Having a mate, me as your mate, it will make you a stronger Alpha and your legacy. . .”
Our legacy. . .
Kai let out a laugh that had a bitter undertone to it. “Why would I give her any satisfaction?”
It took Isla a little while to figure out who he was referring to.
“You’re spiting the Goddess?” She nearly guffawed herself. All of this was some grand scheme against Fate? “Am I some kind of pawn in your vendetta against a deity?”
Isla regretted her last statement as Kai’s face became dark, his smile faltering.
“She’s taken nearly everything from me,” he told her, venom lacing his words. “And if I have any duty to you as your mate, I’m not going to let her do the same to you. Consider it my gift.”
Isla’s jaw went slack. “So you’re rejecting me to save me?”
Kai’s grin returned, though more faint. “There’s no rejection. There’s been no acknowledgement.” He put out his hands, presenting, “We’re free.”
Isla’s eyebrows shot up.
If they did not touch, she could not touch them. They were rid of the pain that came with turning away her will. It made sense, in theory.
Kai continued while moving to grab his coat to go back inside, “When this Hunt ends, you will go back to your Pack, and I will lead mine.”
“And we forget,” Isla finished despite feeling like there was a punchline here that she was missing. It all just felt too easy.
“And we forget,” Kai repeated, approaching her again, daring to move so he was only a foot away. “Hopefully your Warrior travels never take you to me in Deimos. I don’t know if I’ll have as much self-control.” His eyes drew long lines over her body, as they had earlier. “You should thank that Pack Liaison of yours. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Isla squirmed, fighting temptation under his close gaze. “Did—did he say something?”
“If he hadn’t shown up out here when he did—” Kai leaned down until he was just inches away, as if taunting Fate—and testing Isla’s willpower—as he whispered, “you and I weren’t making it to dinner.”
With that, he turned on a heel to walk back up the stairs to the party, but then stopped a part ways up. He spun back around, shoving a hand in his pants’ pocket. “If I can make one request. A favor.”
Isla, who was working to regain her composure, cocked her head to the side. “Yes?”
“Turn in for the night. If I have to watch that General put his hands on you one more time, I may no longer be able to guarantee that I won’t kill him.”
Isla laughed, a true laugh that had been difficult for her to find lately. Taking into account the fact that whenever that passion of his shown through, she felt the nearly-irrepressible urge to jump him, it was easy to oblige to. “Consider it a gift.”
Kai snickered at her mocking and nodded in what was likely a thank you, then continued his way up the stairs.
Isla watched him disappear, slightly mesmerized by the way his body moved, while an amalgamation of thoughts ran through her head. Within the span of a few hours, she’d found her destined mate, learned that he was an Alpha—an Alpha, need she not forget, who she’d speculated a murderer not too much earlier in the night—and conspired with him to work a loophole into a sacred wolf tradition to continue on unhindered with their lives.
Maybe they were perfect for each other, equally insane enough to believe this would work. They were trying to make Fate their bitch, and Isla couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling that the Goddess wouldn’t go down without a fight.
This was only the beginning.