Divide and Conquer
Ian was still bristling as he escorted King’s friends across the crowded room. He’d been acting as Serafina’s guardian? When King was unavailable? What the hell was that?
Serafina hadn’t liked it either but unlike her, Ian had no doubt King’s choice of words had been deliberate. Just like his request-slash-order for Ian to escort Hamish and Sawyer to the garden. King had been trying to shake Ian off their heels all night. He wanted Serafina all to himself.
For my queen.
The words echoed again through Ian’s mind. He hadn’t told Serafina he found King’s card. She’d probably just call it cheesy and laugh. Never in a million years would Serafina believe the growing suspicion in Ian’s mind. He could barely wrap his mind around it himself.
Ian glanced back across the room. Boone was standing alone now and King was slicing a path through the crowd, a much shorter Serafina presumably beside him. You okay? he asked.
I’m fine. Her answer came after a pause. Just a lot of people. My head hurts, Serafina admitted.
Ian knew if she was admitting it, it had been hurting for a while. Ask King to find you an Advil. The detour would give Ian a chance to catch up.
Ian was very aware of King’s friends at his back as they followed him into the empty corridor. The wood-panelled walls muffled the sounds of the party and their size and dominance were even more apparent now that they were alone.
Sawyer and Hamish were friendly enough, a little too friendly if you asked Ian. He had scented them immediately as wolf shifters, two of the many in attendance tonight. Also very weird. Naturally the Elders had no idea. They didn’t even know King and Boone were wolves. Or Conrad. Ian usually found the irony amusing. Not tonight.
Tonight, Ian’s guts were churning and his instincts howling almost louder than his thoughts. There was only one reason so many shifters would be here tonight—King had invited them. But invited them to what?
Ian’s heart pounded at the obvious answer.
Sawyer was eyeing the festive banner on the wall as they walked. “So what’s this whole Day of the White Goddess thing?”
The knot in Ian’s stomach tightened. Of course he didn’t know anything about the Day of the White Goddess. Because he wasn’t here for that. “Serafina’s birthday is a Church holiday.”
“Today’s her birthday?” Hamish glanced at Sawyer, who shrugged. “I didn’t know.”
“Me either.” Sawyer said. “How old?”
It was true then. King hadn’t invited them to her birthday and they obviously weren’t here to celebrate the Day of the White Goddess and her symbolic ascension to womanhood.
At least, it was supposed to be symbolic.
Ian gagged a little as a wave of nausea overcame him. Whatever else he thought of King, never, not once, had he given off any kind of vibe like that. Not in Ian’s presence, or through Serafina’s eyes when she and King were alone.
It was impossible to believe—but it also explained everything. Why the Elders hadn’t let him in on their big surprise. Why King had been at Serafina’s side all night instead of Elder Macklin. Why there were so many shifters here tonight.
It explained the dress, the crown, the message on the card, even Boone wearing a suit. And it explained the ominous sense of foreboding Ian had been grappling with all night.
“She’s turning twelve,” Ian said tightly. A girl. A child. Had King been grooming her all this time? Grooming all of them? Self-loathing washed over him. How had he not seen it? He was her Guardian. How had he allowed this to happen?
It hasn’t happened yet. That’s what Conrad would say. Ian squared his shoulders unconsciously. And it wasn’t going to happen. He was going to make sure of it.
“Really.” Sawyer’s surprise was disturbingly mild.
“Must be the wolf in her, maturing faster than a human,” Hamish mused, earning a nod from Sawyer.
Ian battled to keep the shock from his face. Inside, he was reeling. Serafina had wolf in her? Had King told them that? She didn’t smell like a shifter. At all. Even Conrad thought she was human. Could Serafina really have wolf blood? How ironic would that be?
Remembering Cassandra, who’d been weaker even than most humans, Ian wondered how far back this wolf could be on her family tree. If Serafina’s mother knew she had shifter genes, she’d never mentioned it to anyone so how would King know about it? To Ian’s knowledge, he and Serafina’s mother had never even met.
Still struggling with the implications, Ian found himself standing with Sawyer and Hamish at the end of the hall. He had to go find Serafina right now and get her away from King, and the Elders for that matter. The level of betrayal on their part was too huge for Ian to think about right now.
“I have to go. You can smoke right out there.” Ian nodded to the heavy glass door.
“Great.” Reaching past Ian, Sawyer pushed the garden door open wide. An alarm jangled in Ian’s head so loud, for a second he thought someone had installed one on the door.
The sun was almost gone and the sky was streaked with pink and orange as Sawyer used his superior bulk to manoeuvre Ian outside, Hamish following closely behind them. The air was cool and fresh after the heat and press of bodies inside. Ian filled his lungs, imagining the oxygen molecules travelling through his blood, making him stronger.
“I have to go,” Ian repeated. It wasn’t lost on him that Hamish hadn’t moved away from the door.
“It’s nice out here.” Hamish glanced around the garden as if Ian hadn’t spoken. It was Elder Vera’s pride, a rainbow of perennial blooms and greenery studded with solar lights glowing dimly under the setting sun. “By the fucking goddess, it’s true!” His gestured to the centre of the garden. “All the flowers are facing that bench!”
“Fuck me.” Sawyer lit a cigarette and exhaled. “I thought Boone was just—well, you know.”
Hamish raised a brow. “Talking out of his ass?”
The knot in Ian’s stomach tightened at their banter. Still pretending they had just come out here for a smoke when it was very obvious that King hadn’t sent Ian to escort Hamish and Sawyer here. They’d been sent to escort him. To keep Ian away from the service. Away from Serafina.
How long had he already been away from her? Ten minutes? Fifteen? Where are you? Ian demanded, trying to keep the panic from his voice.
In the sunroom, came Serafina’s guilty reply. We got here a couple of minutes ago. I forgot to tell you, sorry.
It’s okay. Ian was too relieved to be annoyed. The sunroom was off the busy kitchen, with an open archway and three walls of windows. More private than Ian would have liked, but not as private as he’d feared. Just make sure you tell me if you leave.
“Does that mean she can really communicate with animals, too?” Sawyer was asking now. He was slighter leaner than Hamish, with slicked-back hair and a major Christian Beale vibe from American Psycho. Ian had watched the movie with Conrad just last week.
Hamish was different. Built like a linebacker and wore his dominance and authority like Conrad did. With purpose, like a coach or a drill sergeant, but smoother. He was the nice one, the good guy. The one who sucked you in.
“Communicate’s not really the right word,” Ian said as calmly as he could. Hamish had six inches on him and at least eighty pounds, Sawyer as close to the same as made no difference. Ian wasn’t sure he could take one of them, much less both.
“Boone used the word charm,” Hamish reminded his friend.
“Right.” Sawyer took a deep drag of his cigarette and exhaled. “So what’s the most dangerous animal she’s ever charmed?”
“King,” Ian deadpanned.
The men guffawed, their laughter ringing out over the quiet garden. Ian searched for the moon, a pale outline hanging low and round in the twilight sky.
Services began at nightfall. That gave Ian twenty minutes, maybe half an hour to get away from Hamish and Sawyer, find Serafina, and get her away from King and the Elders.
How the fuck he was going to do any of that, Ian had no idea.
🐺 Thank you for reading! 🐺
🙏 If you enjoyed this chapter, please click ❤️