“Are you afraid of me?” Chris asks, his voice laced with pain. He’s not even looking at me, probably afraid of my answer.
Am I afraid of him?
No. He may intimidate me sometimes, but not scare me.
I place my hand softly on his arm to prove I’m not afraid as I shake my head no.
I feel him shift towards me on the log, but I just keep looking into the woods. His hand lands gently on my cheek and I subconsciously lean into his caress before catching myself. He turns me to look at him, his hazel eyes searching mine as he asks, “What is it then?”
“I don’t know,” I admit, trying to drop my gaze. I had no idea my actions had left him feeling like this; the guilt gnaws at me. He turned me back, clearly wanting more.
“You do intimidate me sometimes,” I admit. “Your emotions are so volatile, and you’re hard to read.”
I struggle to put my feelings into words; I haven’t even figured this out for myself yet. “You confuse me one minute, then make me feel safe and protected the next,” I trail off. “I don’t understand any of this; how you can stand out so much and break every boundary, and yet it’s so easy to be around you sometimes,” I say more to myself in barely a whisper.
It’s frustrating the effect he has on me, and that’s what scares me, not the man himself.
The realization is shocking; I feel my walls crumbling under his intense gaze.
I didn’t want this, did I?
After what happened to me I swore I’d never let a man have that kind of power over me again.
Yet here he is, making his way in, and I’m letting him. Why?
Caught up in my own world, I didn’t notice him closing the gap, bringing his lips to brush mine. The sudden contact is startling and I gasp, frozen in place. Before I can process what he’s done, his lips find mine again. Soft yet firm, his kiss is surprisingly gentle. I sat there unmoving for a moment before my lips met his, returning the kiss.
His hand moves from my cheek to the back of my neck, deepening the kiss once I return it. My hand slips up his chest earning a deep growl of approval that causes a tightening in my core. As quickly as it started it was over, he pulls back with a final light kiss, leaving me breathless as my heart races. He just looks down at me, eyes flickering between their regular hazel and a deeper brown.
The sound of a twig breaking barely has time to register before Chris shoots up, taking me with him. He sweeps me behind him as he faces the direction of the sound in one fluid motion. I hook a hand on his side to steady myself as I gain my bearings. I feel his low warning growl through my fingertips before it reaches my ears.
“Hey Chris. I don’t suppose you’ve seen a little elf roaming these woods have you? I seem to have misplaced mine.”
Another growl leaves Chris as he picks up the empty beer bottle and chucks it at Jace’s head. He ducks, but Jude who’s right behind him catches it, his eyebrow raises with a look of concern on his face.
I slowly step out from behind Chris. “There you are little elf.” Jace flashes me a knowing smile as his eyes zero in on my hand on Chris’s side. Blush burns my face and I drop my gaze in embarrassment as I step away from Chris.
“You of all people should know better than to sneak up on an Alpha,” Chris snarls.
Jace is completely unphased. “In all fairness, I tried to give you a heads up but I couldn’t get through,” he says, tapping the side of his head. “Now I see why,” he grins at me again.
“What do you want?” Chris says, the annoyance clear in his voice.
“Well dinner is ready and we are missing our guest of honor,” Jace teases, mischief dancing in his grey eyes.
Not wanting to prolong this awkward exchange any longer, I head towards them. “Lead the way,” I say to Jude, hoping to move past the questions I see in their eyes.
Jude looks at me a moment, his eyes asking if I’m okay. I just give him a quick smile and nod, then he turns to lead us back to the BBQ.
Before we even make it out of the woods the aroma hits, causing my mouth to water. The walk back is quiet but I can feel Chris’s eyes on me the whole way as I walk with Jude.
Xavier has beers waiting for the guys by the time we get to the table. Claire gives me a suspicious look as she takes my empty cup to refill it. I can’t help but blush under her scrutiny, which apparently answers her question as she breaks out in a triumphant smile.
I gladly take the drink, downing half of it right off the bat and earning a hearty laugh from her. I take a seat in the middle of the table, hoping my blush will be gone by the time everyone takes a seat.
A moment later, the guys bring platters piled high with ribs, chicken wings, potato skins, and all sorts of food. The spread’s impressive, fit for royalty. Jude and Jace walk up behind me, setting their drinks down on either side. Before they can sit, a barely audible rumble sounds. Jace slides his drink across and sits down on the opposite side of the table as Chris takes the seat next to me while Jude sits on my right.
As Xavier and Claire come with the last dishes, they look from Chris to the empty head of the table, landing back on me in question. “Take a seat Xav, it’s not a formal dinner,” Chris says. Xavier takes the head seat with Claire to his side.
“You’ve outdone yourselves,” Chris says approvingly. “We might need to have company more often,” he finishes with a chuckle as everyone digs in.
With that, dinner commences and a lightness settles on the table as easy conversations and laughs sound often. Ethan’s in his glory, gnawing on a large rib bone like some feral pup. I can’t help but laugh as he snaps at Jude’s hand when he tries to grab it.
I look around, seeing everyone in a new light. There’s no longer the formal barrier required with secrecy. I hadn’t even realized it was there before, but now that it is gone, I don’t know how I didn’t see it sooner.
“So what made you cook an entire butcher shop tonight, Jace? I mean, it’s great don’t get me wrong, but there’s so much food!”
He beams at my complement. “There’s no such thing as too much food here. Whatever’s left over afterwards will go back to the pack house kitchen and won’t last long.” He grins at me. “My BBQ is always in demand.”
I frown, thinking about what he means. “Why don’t they just come and grab it while it’s hot then? It’s always best right off the grill,” I reason.
“They didn’t want to overwhelm you with too many people at once,” Sara chimes in with a smirk.
“I appreciate that, but I don’t mind at all,” I reply coolly, earning a skeptical look from Sara. “Really, I’d rather everyone enjoy it while it’s hot, I’ve got nothing to worry about right?” I shrug, but that last part is more to myself.
My heart nearly leaps out of my chest as I feel Chris’s large hand on my thigh, snapping my attention to him instantly.
“You have absolutely nothing to worry about from anyone here,” Chris promises me, giving my leg a squeeze for emphasis. “You sure you don’t mind more company?”
I’ve become incredibly aware of just how close he is now. I nod, not trusting my voice, and give a small smile before turning back to my plate. I catch the trace of a smirk on his face; he knows exactly the effect he’s having on me!
I throw back the rest of my drink and go to get up for a refill, but Chris simply chuckles shaking his head as he takes my glass to refill it.
Before long, others started to arrive. Doc was the first to arrive; apparently his first name is Marty. He introduces me to his mate Lily, who also works at the pack hospital as a nurse. Slowly more people file in, some say hi, others give just a quick smile and nod. The last group to come are apparently warriors and take up with Sara.
The influx of people put Jace back to work on the grill, Xavier and Claire are also helping to feed the expanding group. Chris is off talking on his cell while Jude and Ethan are in a larger group of people. I frown.
Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.
The fact that they are wolves has nothing to do with my discomfort; I’m not fond of large gatherings. I can manage them okay by clinging on to familiar people, but everyone’s busy.
A familiar presence brings me out of reflection. “You look pretty far away there,” Chris says, then raises a brow. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, just thinking,” I trail off.
“If there’s too many people I can send some away,” he suggests. I put a hand on his arm and with a sad smile shake my head no. He turns to me. “What’s wrong then?”
“Nothing, it’s just a moment.” He keeps watching me, clearly wanting more of an explanation.
“You know, I never used to be this bad around people, I used to be pretty comfortable at BBQ’s and bonfires.” He just frowns at my words. “I just don’t want you to think that you or anyone else has done something all the time, sometimes it’s just my own issues.”
“What changed?” He asks, hazel eyes full of concern. I shake my head and head back towards the group noticing the crowd around Jude and Ethan has cleared out. I grab Chris’s wrist to drag him along so he didn’t think I was running away. “Sorry you don’t have to tell me,” he apologizes.
“Just don’t want to get into it now,” I dismiss. “Come on let’s make s’mores or something.”
I look to Jace who’s making a funny face. “What? You guys don’t eat s’mores here?” I scan the group; everyone is giving me the same confused look.
“Really!?” I’m shocked! “Toasted marshmallow, chocolate and Graham crackers? Not ringing a bell, at all? How?” By this point my face is contorted by disbelief, like how do they not know what s’mores are!?
Jude is the first to crack, followed by everyone else. I smack Jace in the ribs as he bursts out laughing. A moment later Claire returns with a tray of marshmallows, chocolate bars and Graham crackers. “Yes, we know what s’mores are. Your face was priceless though.”
I roll my eyes and drag a smiling Ethan over to the fire to roast marshmallows. Before long, we’re laughing over stupid things. Jude knocks Jace’s marshmallow into the fire, Jace then sets Jude’s on fire. I’m pretty sure Xavier and Claire are the only adults left making proper s’mores.
I lift my marshmallow out of the fire to check how evenly toasted it is. Happy with it’s golden brown goodness, I reach up only to be robbed! Chris towers over my sitting form and snatches his prize with a smirk. My jaw drops, but before I can protest his cell rings and he walks away. I can’t hear what he’s saying but it’s clear it isn’t a happy conversation.
“That good, eh?” I say, sitting down next to him. I pass him a couple s’mores I managed to rescue from Jace. “I hear toasted marshmallow, chocolaty goodness improves any situation,” I say nudging him with my shoulder.
“Nothing to worry about. Was just a neighbouring pack, they’ve been having rogue issues also.” He runs his hand through his already messed up hair.
“It’s always something,” he mumbles. “Come on, let’s go back.” He stands up and holds a hand out for me, helping me up before leading back to the dwindling group.
“So, when’s challenge this year?” Sara asks casually. “First strings are itching for a whooping.” She laughs, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“This year we’ve got you guys,” the tall redheaded warrior chirps.
“Not so fast Nat, the challenge hasn’t even been named yet, let alone teams picked,” Jace chimes in.
I’m thoroughly lost at this point. “What’s challenge?”
“Challenge is a pack sport, it changes from game to game but the basics are a challenging team takes on the past winner. Captains are always the same, but teams change. It’s partially to break up the routine of training, and partially to showcase individual ability and teamwork. Finishes with a pretty good party, usually some bets placed as well,” Xavier explains.
“Who are the captains? And what does the challenging team have to do?” My interest is piqued, seems like a pretty good rivalry.
“Alpha and head warrior” Jace replies; so, Chris vs. Sara, that would be interesting! “The challenge is different each time; sometimes it’s something like protect and defend, other times more like capture the flag, there may be restrictions like wolf form only,” he trails off with a shrug.
“Could you be ready for next weekend?” Chris asks. Sara nods enthusiastically, a fire in her eyes. “Teams?” He asks, raising a brow.
“I want Jude as my second,” Sara says, not missing a beat. She eyes Jude up and down like a steak, “I want to see what he’s capable of.”
“No.” Chris scowls at this; Jude looks mortified.
“As challenger, I get first dibs. He put in for a transfer, what better way to see if he’s a good fit. What’s it gonna hurt to knock him around a bit?” Apparently that’s her selling point, knowing his annoyance with Jude.
“Sorry Chris, I had no idea she was gonna bring that up,” Jude tries to backpedal.
“Don’t think you can handle it?” There’s a dangerous look in Chris’s eye, I can’t tell if it’s a challenge or if he feels insulted.
“Um,” Jude stalls, clearly seeing the trap but not seeing the safe way out, he gives me a desperate look. “I don’t want to intrude, I know that I’m only here because of Jess, I wouldn’t feel right playing without her.”
My eyebrow shoots up; it’s the safest play but I didn’t like being put out as a shield.
Only Jude can get away with that.
Chris leans back in his chair, mulling over his response. Apparently Jude picked the best exit after all. “She can play too,” he replies with an unreadable expression. Sara shoots up, clearly this wasn’t part of her plan.
“How can she possibly play? She can’t even shift?” She snarls in disgust.
Unphased, he shrugs, “So this year will be a human challenge. Two years ago was only wolf. Same rules as always, submit or outlast, sparing rules.” She looks ready to explode as she eyes me.
‘You thought she didn’t like you to begin with.’ ‘Oh no I’ve clearly just made it to the top of her hit list!’
“Fine!” She snarls, then sneers, “If you want to be stuck babysitting her, be my guest.”
Chris lets out a harsh laugh, “Oh no, she’s on your team. You want to see what Jude is capable of, he’ll be on my team. We’ll do men vs women, human only form.” At this point we are all just watching slack jawed, waiting to see what craziness comes next.
“So you’ll have Jace, Xavier and Jude, I get saddled with a handicap and get only three warriors?” The outrage is clear in her voice as well as the challenge.
“We’ll play double roster, make your team of ten as challenger. I’ll take a handicap too.” He nods at Ethan who is bursting with excitement at being chosen.
“Fine,” she agrees.
Oh shit, what just happened?
I look at Jude who’s barely containing his excitement. Well, at least one of us is excited. I can suffer through it if that gives him a chance.