1 | Belong To You
“I am so in deep trouble right now,” Justin growled to himself before shifting and running as fast as he could out of Steel Mountain territory. This was the third job he’d ruined in as many weeks. Why couldn’t he do anything right? Why did he have to be the one to ruin the entire logging operation by breaking the machinery and nearly sending three other loggers to their deaths?
Her face haunted his memories, filled his dreams at night, and consumed his thoughts by day. Accidentally dropping his axe in the timber shredder was just the tip of the iceberg that was his unending pain at separation from his Alpha.
A wolf wasn’t meant to go it alone. A Beta especially was meant to remain loyal and committed to his Alpha, staying by her side for life as they looked after their pack together. Walking away from her had been the hardest thing he’d done in his life, though he told himself daily it was probably the best.
So why couldn’t he control his mind, keep a tight lid on his pain, and get on with life? Why did he have to see her face on every shewolf he encountered, hear her laugh in every voice, and feel her carefree spirit in every sigh of the wind? They’d had their differences, but she’d always balanced his seriousness with her spontaneity, and he’d calmed her when her emotions ran high. Together, they’d been the perfect team.
When would he stop loving her?
“Hey, Justin. Wait up!”
“I don’t want to hear another ounce of sympathy.” Justin growled, stopping his run and shifting long enough to shout back at the Gamma of Steel Mountain. Trace had been kind enough to take him under his wing and supervise his training on the job. He felt terrible at leaving so suddenly, but he couldn’t impose on the Gamma’s good graces any longer.
It seemed he’d remain a wanderer, never staying in one place, never tethering to an anchor of peace. Was his soul doomed to roam this planet forever?
“I just wanted to say, I know you feel like ya outta luck. But never give up hope, you feel me?” Trace crossed his burly arms across his thick chest, and gave Justin a hard stare. The wolf’s almost black eyes were relentless, but fathomed with sincerity. “I can see you’re hurtin’, and I don’t need to know why. But God always hears, especially when you’re at ya lowest. No harm in just askin’ the Good Lord for a little direction, ’kay bro?”
Justin refrained from rolling his eyes. He’d never felt so distant from the good Lord, and couldn’t imagine anyone caring two pins for what he was going through. “Yeah, yeah, save your words for church, old man,” he mumbled irreverently, turning and shifting once more.
Only once Trace’s scent had disappeared from the wind did he breathe easier. Slowing his steps, he looked at the horizon and could almost see his home territory in the distance. Did everyone miss him as much as he missed them? Maybe he should just go home, and surround himself with his family. He missed his brother Jacob and sister Jireh. Even his mother’s insistent advice was something he missed, as well as his father’s stern words of rebuke or affirming words of encouragement.
Why had he left them behind? Just because he couldn’t stand the sight of his best friend with another man, wasn’t enough reason to turn his back on everyone else he loved.
The words foolish, idiot, and blockhead rang in his head, in the voice of his younger brother. Jacob had pleaded with him to stay, but Justin had shut everyone out and run. Something only a coward would do, he finally admitted to himself.
“God, why have I been so stupid?” he muttered to himself, unsure if his Creator was caring to listen.
A grey cloud was gathering on the western horizon, and he knew it would be unwise to run home towards a gathering storm. Across the stretch of land, the elements would be against him, only compounding the risk of rogues and demons already standing in his way. He’d begin his trek westward on the morrow, once the world was washed clean and his mind was clearer. For now, he needed to find shelter, warmth, and a place to think.
Trudging through the forest with only his thoughts as company, he didn’t notice the birds cease twittering or the rabbits scurry to their burrows. He didn’t smell the stench of roguish wolves or the onset of trouble.
Only when a startled shewolf ran across his path did he stop and stare after her.
A lingering scent of pineberry was left in her wake, and Justin’s heartbeat picked up. “Hey!” he called after her, knowing she only ran into gathering darkness. As far as he knew, there was no town in that direction to shelter her for the night.
He took off after her when she didn’t respond, sprinting in powerful strides and soon catching up to her shorter, frenzied pace. Her long, dark hair flew wildly while her arms pumped with determination.
“Hey, what are you running from?” he asked, throwing himself in front of her.
She had no choice but to pull up and stare at him, panting hard. Her walnut brown eyes glared at him with a mixture of fear and anxiety, her carmine lips gaping to take in air. Her scent, mixed with soil and sweat, filled his nose and overwhelmed his senses.
When she looked over her shoulder skittishly, he followed her gaze and heard the crash of underbrush and murmuring of voices. They sounded angry, causing the shewolf to skirt around Justin and dart back into the trees.
“This isn’t good,” Justin growled, turning to take after the shewolf again. If she was being pursued, he would protect her from the men who had obviously instilled such fear into her heart. “I can help you,” he whispered harshly when he caught up to her again, and felt a sudden urge to wrap his arms around her trembling frame and shield her from the men hunting her.
“Just stay away,” she pleaded, turning to him for only a moment to spit the words. It was in that moment, when her eyes were off the path, that she tripped on a rock and grunted loudly as she fell.
Justin shifted into his wolf in a fraction of a second, dashed under her, and cushioned her fall. They rolled on the ground, and he shifted to wrap her in his arms and hold her above the leaf-littered and muddy forest floor.
Her small body fit perfectly against his own, except for her rounded stomach that had his heart clenching in confusion.
“You don’t want to get involved,” she told him quickly, before shoving herself off him and standing.
From this angle, he could clearly see she was pregnant. She quickly tucked her jacket closer around her, wrapping her hands protectively over her belly.
“Well, lookey, lookey. What do we have here?” A deep voice chuckled as it drew nearer.
The shewolf stared behind her, realising with a sickening feeling that she was surrounded. Justin could practically hear her heart kick into an even more frantic rhythm.
“Did you really think you could run from us? Pathetic female, always getting a foolish notion in your stubborn head.”
Justin was on his feet and facing the speaker in one quick motion. Angling his body so it protected the shewolf, he watched as three men advanced on them. He could hear two more creeping up from behind. They were well dressed, though in an odd fashion that spoke of a foreign and far away territory. How far had this shewolf run?
“I don’t know what entered your head to run into this god-forsaken forest, little shewolf,” the leader spoke, taking determined strides in Justin’s direction. “But there’s no amount of goodwill from any man that can keep me from what is mine.” He was older, perhaps in his sixties, and Justin sized up him and his comrades in a matter of seconds.
Unless they had concealed weapons, he could easily take them down despite the man’s confident words.
“I don’t belong to you,” the shewolf spat, the venom in her voice surprising Justin. Her eyes had been so wide and frightened, but a tiger crouched in the shadows of her fear.
“Tut-tut-tut,” the man clicked his tongue and shook his head. “That’s where you’re wrong, my sweetness. You do belong to me, and I intend to keep what I own, no matter how far you run. Now be a good girl and come home. Nobody has to get hurt.” He pointedly ignored Justin, instead looking through him and smirking at the girl.
“Didn’t you hear what she said? She’s not going with you,” Justin growled, daring the men to take a step closer. “If you really care about her, you’ll respect her wishes and stay the hell away from her.”
“Respect?” The man recoiled as if Justin had physically punched him. “She knows nothing of respect, the little whore. I have a good mind to give her what she deserves for her respect, after I divorce her, of course,” he snickered, and his buddies chuckled in agreement.
“Divorce?” The word tasted bitter on Justin’s tongue. What claim did this man have on the shewolf? A heavy feeling settled in his cold chest, and he refused to believe he may have already lost his chance at destiny.
“Uh huh, that’s right,” the man nodded, bitterness clouding his eyes. “You see, my betrothed here couldn’t even remain true to our vows for a month, before she runs around town and gets herself pregnant. For her unfaithfulness, she should be stoned. But I’m willing to come to an agreement, to show I’m not the heartless coyote she thinks I am.” His muddy brown eyes darted from Justin to the girl. “If you’ll just come with me, sweetheart, we can work this all out.” He held out his hand, and Justin felt like ripping it off.
The shewolf didn’t move, instead remaining behind Justin as the men stood firm in a circle around them.
“What kind of barbaric pack are you from, to stone a girl for being pregnant?” Justin glared at them, keeping his arms loose and stance poised, ready for an attack if need be.
“The kind that believes in fidelity and honour. We have no tolerance for loose behaviour like this.” He motioned to her belly, a sneer on his face as if the very sight of her was shaming him.
“That’s not what happened,” the shewolf protested, her voice resigned as if she’d already said this many times.
“Hmm, is that so?” The man lifted his eyebrows incredulously. “Come now, Maryam, you really think I believe your fairytales of an angel coming in the night to tell of a special babe you’ll conceive? You really think your lies will cover your filthy sin? We all know what happened, so no denying you’re a harlot.” He spat the word as if even saying it would taint his lips. “The only question is, was it the baker’s boy who caved to your seduction, or the handsome merchant who arrived in town last month? Yes, I saw the way you were looking at him. Stealing glances from behind your veil of betrothal.”
Justin barely heard the rest of the man’s angry diatribe, as the shewolf’s melodic name rolled around in his mind.
She remained silent, which was probably the best thing to do in this situation. Whatever had happened, the men were refusing to give her a fair trial, but instead hunting her down like she was a witch to be burned at the stake.
“Look, guys,” Justin raised his arms in placation. “I don’t care what happened between you, but you’ve got to let her go. So what if she’s pregnant and it’s not your baby? Clearly you don’t want her as mate, so--”
“Mate? What was that you just said?” the man asked, cocking his head as if Justin spoke another language. His friends tilted their heads or raised eyebrows skeptically. “This doesn’t have anything to do with mates, so whatever stupendous notions fill your head, keep your nose out of our business.”
“Yeah, and I’m sick of listening to you talk,” one of the others spoke. “It’s getting late, Ahmed. Let’s just grab the girl and get out of here.”
“I agree. That storm’s getting closer. I can feel it,” another added.
The atmosphere had indeed changed. A shift in the air alerted Justin. A trembling of the leaves in the surrounding trees. Movement in his periphery that gave the other wolves away.
As they lunged, Justin ducked. As they reached for Maryam, he leapt between and shoved them into the ground. As they protruded their claws and swiped dangerously close to her windpipe, the Beta grabbed them by the necks and slung them into the nearest tree trunk.
As the leader--Ahmed--crept up in his moment of distraction and snatched at the shewolf’s ankle, Justin twisted and slashed his claws across the man’s wrist.
His grip loosened, spraying blood on the shewolf’s jeans. She scrambled out of his reach while Justin grabbed the man and hauled him to his feet.
“I will not let you touch her,” Justin spoke hotly in the man’s face. From up this close, the man stunk like a rogue, likely from being out in the elements for days. The shewolf must be strong to have run from them for so long. From the corner of his eye, he saw her resting against a tree trunk, her knees wobbling as that strength was finally running out. He ached to run and scoop her into his arms.
“Why? What right have you to snatch my bride?” Ahmed leered. “And why would you want something already soiled? She’s worth naught but as a slave in my household.”
A ferocious growl of rage erupted in Justin’s throat and rushed past his lips. His hands twisted, millimeters from snapping the man’s neck.
The shewolf behind him whimpered, and he turned enough to see one of the men had his own hands around her throat. With an evil glare, they laid out the terms of this negotiation.
If Justin killed Ahmed, he’d be killing Maryam also.
“She’s my mate,” Justin hissed lowly in Ahmed’s ear. “And if I find out you or your men have raped or abused her, I will hunt you down, and I will castrate you. Then, because I’m merciful, I’ll slit your throat so every milliliter of your blood stains this soil. You understand me?”
For a long moment Ahmed held his eyes, swallowed hard under the pressure of Justin’s fingers, then finally looked beyond him to his men. “Bassam, let her go,” he said with a gasp.
Only once Justin was sure the shewolf was safe did he loosen his fingers. Shoving the man away, he backed up until his body once more shielded hers.
“Enjoy your little whore,” Ahmed sneered, cackling as he gathered his men and slipped into the trees.
Their muffled laughter and curses chased them into the shadows, but Justin only breathed easier after tugging on the girl’s sleeve and leading her in the opposite direction.
“You didn’t have to help me.”
Her gentle voice startled Justin as it disturbed the silence around them. “Yes, I did. Who knows what they were going to do to you. And to your baby,” he told her, fighting the urge to chase after them and enact his threats here and now.
When he turned and studied her, he noticed the way her eyes shifted to the trees around them, her bronze skin appearing sallow in the waning light, while her fingers trembled as she tucked them into her sleeves. She looked like she was planning to run the moment he took his eyes off her. Keeping his voice steady, he spoke firmly, “Listen, Maryam--”
She jumped at the sound of her name, and he winced at her reaction. Inwardly cursing himself, he changed tack and approached her with more caution. “My name is Justin, and I used to be the Beta of a pack not far from here,” he introduced himself, holding out his hand in what he hoped was a friendly gesture.
After staring at it for a few moments without responding, she lifted her eyes to his with a look of incomprehension.
Retracting his hand, he chose to rake it through his messy hair as he took a deep breath and prayed for patience. What had this girl gone through to make her so wary and guarded? If only she knew how much he wanted to help, not hurt, her. “I know you think you can take care of yourself, and I don’t doubt it. But there’s a storm coming, and it’s gonna be bad. I can tell. All I want to do is find somewhere dry to spend the night. There should be some caves not far from here. You think you can follow me there?”
In truth, he wanted to swoop her up and carry her to warmth and safety. But then, would he be any better than those stinking wolves demanding she go with them? He needed to give her the choice, though it went against every fibre of his fiercely protective nature.
She looked around them again, lifting her nose and sensing the oncoming rain, perhaps more strongly than he could. He’d heard that pregnant shewolves had even more heightened senses than those of high rank. After a few tense minutes of debating with herself, she slowly nodded her head.
Justin felt his shoulders deflate in a sigh of relief, and once more led her in the direction of the caves he knew were nearby. Alpha Zander’s territory, Siyah Magara, wasn’t too far away, and his land was riddled with caves on the western boundary line. The mountainous ridge had given the pack its name, and Justin was suddenly very grateful for paying close attention to geography lessons in school.
The landscape changed, the incline steepened, and as they climbed Justin scanned the dark terrain for hints of shelter. The trees around them stirred with the strengthening wind, and billowing grey clouds overtook the sky above them. A chill settled in the air, causing snakes of cold sweat to run down Justin’s back. Pausing to take off his jacket, he handed it to Maryam who at first looked at him quizzically, before wrapping it around her shoulders with a faint smile. Fat drops of rain started then, causing the pair to walk even faster.
Finally, tucked amongst a grove of trees, Justin spotted a dark opening in the rocky cliffs before them. Scrambling to the entrance, he cleared the shrubs and sticks, checked for spiders, snakes and other dangerous occupants, before gesturing to Maryam to join him. They settled on the dry rocks inside just as the sky opened with a vengeance, unleashing gales of wind and torrents of rain. Justin had dragged in dry brush before the rain really started, and quickly assembled a fire. Using matches from his backpack, he soon had a small blaze that only fought off a fraction of the cold.
Studying Maryam’s face as she sat across from him, he finally took note of every line and every detail of her beautiful features. A trace of sadness added depth to her beauty, while a sense of detachment lifted her from the mud and dust of their surroundings. He wanted to reach out and share the sorrow that haunted her, tell her everything would be okay, that he would make it better.
But how could he even get close when she didn’t trust him, and was liable to run at any moment? The unspoken pain of her past was torturing him. Had those men abused her? Was that why she was running? Was she protecting the father of her child from their wrath? Had the man she slept with rejected her when he found out she was pregnant? Was she really engaged to marry Ahmed, a man who was old enough to be her father? Perhaps that alone was why she was on the run, but Justin really couldn’t judge their situation without any facts. Maybe things in their pack were done differently.
“Here, I have a bit of water in my bottle, if you’re thirsty,” he said slowly, careful not to startle her. “And when the rain lets up, I’ll hunt for something to eat, hopefully a rabbit or possum. We can roast it over the fire. I also have a spare shirt if you want something soft to sleep on. It isn’t much, but it’s better than a rock.” He dug through his backpack and handed her his meager belongings. All his life, he’d waited for the day to provide for his mate; to give her a home, food, security and comfort.
Now, all he could offer was a muesli bar for dinner and a cave for shelter. He’d give his arms as comfort, but the tentative look in her eyes made it clear she wasn’t ready to accept even that.
“Justin,” she said, her soft yet clear voice causing his heart to pick up speed. The question in her eyes made his chest tighten. “What is a mate?”