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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Romance  ➡  Paranormal

A Moment for Tara

 

A Moment for Tara

 

 

By Tamar Sloan

 

 

Published by Tamar Sloan at Shakespir

 

Cover Art Designed by SYNECA FEATHERSTONE

Copyright © 2017

 

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

About Tamar Sloan

Chapter One

Back Before

For as long as I can remember Noah, Mitch and I have been the three amigos, the three musketeers, Huey, Duey and Luey.

From nappies, when we frolicked in communal drool puddles on Mom’s rug (okay, I don’t actually remember that, but I’ve got the photos to prove that it really happened). To first grade, where I had the tornado of all red-headed-tantrums because I WAS GOING TO JACKSONVILLE ELEMENTARY – coincidentally where Mitch and Noah were enrolled – even though I live in adjacent Wilmot. To yesterday, when we laid bets on what color our wolf forms would be when we turn sixteen in just a few short months (as a red-head I was a pretty done deal).

The fact that my childhood besties were guys was a bonus. When you have more younger sisters than should be legal in a first world country – six with number seven billowing in Mom’s tum – you well and truly get your daily dose of the morning hair line-up, how short is too short, and the total domination of pink. The Phelan boys were my grounding in a chaotic world of oestrogen overload, eldest child responsibilities and Bratz doll invasions.

But do you want to know what kinda sucks? And I mean more than stepping on a Bratz doll first thing in the morning (Lego ain’t got nothing on Yasmin). More than having a high body temperature that no one can know about so you still have to rug up and get beanie hair. More than asparagus.

When the one who went and stole your heart is one of those BFFs.

Sure, most people would think I’m on the wrong side of the coin. Being in love with your best friend since forever is kinda cool, right? Well, none of those people are me.

And my guess is they’re all human too.

Do you want to know when it started to suck?

Well, for that I need to go back a bit.

We were at the Glade, only three months ago, but it feels a whole lot longer than that. Mom’s bump was growing steadily and she needed a break. Even though she’s pale and frail at the best of times, she was on her way to a parchment paper look with this pregnancy. So I took three of my Channon siblings to the Glade; six-year-old Flora, four-year-old Breanna and two-year-old Christa. The Glade, the Channon and Phelan Were-church/mosque/temple built for us by Mother Nature, is the one place the wildness of children, particularly the Channon children, is welcomed. Even celebrated.

Noah and Mitch met us there. They’re twins, the fraternal type which means they’re not identical. In fact, they have matching blue eyes – gifted by their father’s DNA – and that’s where their similarities end. Noah has blond-hunk-without-even-trying ticked in every box, whilst Mitch is all dark-haired-boy-next-door good looks. Their ying-yang coloring puts an entirely different spin on their supposedly identical eyes. Noah’s lighten and warm.

Mitch’s darken and gain depth.

Anyway, I digress…

Flora, Breanna and Christa ran, tripped in the lush grass, and like it’s a giant green cushion, got up and ran again. They all know this place is secret, but not why. That we learn when we’re older and less likely to blurt that we have a tendency to turn into wolves at the age of sixteen. Children sense this place is special. Heck, the air knows this place is something else. It seems to hold still, like it doesn’t want to move on. The whole place is a breath held in Mama Nature’s lungs.

A game of tips evolved, possibly when I tagged Noah crying ‘eat my socks!’ then sprinted to the opposite end of the clearing. He’d grinned, then stumbled forward when Mitch used him as a platform to launch his own race in my direction.

Flora, Breanna and Christa dispersed in random directions, looking like a Stooges comedy as two bumped into each other, side-stepped one way then the other, then bumped into each other again. Flora was long gone, heading to the opposite end of the Glade.

Noah went all ‘fee-fie-fo-fum I smell the fur of a little one’ and started stalking. I was happy to stand and watch, listening to my little sisters’ laughter as they scuttled back and forth, laughing at Noah roaring like a stuck Were. But Mitch? I don’t think he’s ever stood back and watched anything.

He started circling, blue eyes glinting with mischief, slowly closing in. I knew what was coming, I’ve seen it countless times before, and I felt my smile stretch from one side of the Glade to the other. Noah knew what was coming too, you can’t miss a great big hulk of muscle and dark hair in an open glade no matter how ninja-like he steps. He knew Mitch would wait until the three little Channons had scampered off again.

But he’d forgotten that Mitch was the one who pretty much single handedly built our super-secret-cubby-castle deep in the forest behind his house. Which means that Mitch is the master craftsman of all things wood. The moment he was close enough his hand had whipped out and a twiggy throwing star had sailed through the air. Noah’s quick reflexes had him ducking, which is exactly what Mitch was expecting. He ran in, bowled Noah over like a lone pin and headed back to the center of the Glade.

Noah stood, put his head down and went from stationary to sprinting in a blink, his focus clearly on one target – Mitch. Mitch laughed, catch-me-if-you-can written all over his face.

They ran like two brothers having too much fun, like two guys who know they are about to become more than human. They ran until Noah slowly cornered Mitch at one end, the trees behind them, and Noah faked a left then went in from the right. Mitch didn’t even try to escape the boulder of blond coming at him. In true Phelan twin fashion, he met him head on and they crashed, fell and tumbled.

The moment that happened, like all the times before, the-children-of-the-three-ring-circus attacked. The instant the two brothers were down they knew that was their cue. Like a swarm of red squirrels, they overran the tumbling two. And just like he always has, Noah disentangled himself and left Mitch to be swallowed by Channon children. He acted like the three feisty little red heads were his own personal army, and with his opponent down, he left them to finish it. The kids were laughing, Mitch and Noah were laughing, I fell over I was laughing so hard — never suspecting what was coming next.

I look back now and wonder. Why would I fall for one and not the other? Why would I fall for the one I’m not supposed to choose? We were all having fun. No one stood out amongst the others. That’s one of the things that was awesome about our trio. We are like the three primary colours – red, blue and yellow. Equal. You need them all to make up the rest. Mix ‘em up and you get more.

And on that day Mitch didn’t do anything different than what he always has. So why? But then I think about it some more. Whilst Dana, my next sister down, always gravitated to Noah – maybe thanks to Dad’s casual comments; ‘that Noah’s got a good head on his shoulders’, ‘he’ll make a good Alpha that one’ – I could see that his steady, patient personality would be something a person could be attracted to. But the young ones loved Mitch. He was like a big juicy bone to a bunch of little Weres. They never considered turning and attacking Noah, they loved rumbling with Mitch.

As I watched him rolling on the grass, laughter and ‘no mercy’ and ‘oomph’ filling the Glade, something slipped. It was a slow build, but like all slow builds when it finally hits tipping point, it teeters, then falls spectacularly.

I’ve always loved Mitch. His laughter, his passion for creating, his commitment to his family. But in that sunlit moment in the Glade the world as I knew it dissolved and disappeared. And like a breathtaking painting blooming on a blank canvas, something else was created in its stead. All of a sudden familiar dark brown hair had dark chocolate highlights, blue eyes developed depths I hadn’t noticed, like layers of water color seeping and swirling into each other. Those eyes became deepwater eyes, and that boy became the focus of my rapidly beating heart.

And just like that I tripped, tumbled and fell in love with Mitch Phelan.

It felt so right, so true, so downright destined.

But it was wrong, disloyal and infinitely impossible.

And that’s why it sucks.

Chapter Two

Still Before

It took Mitch a little longer to discover anything beyond a world of chocolate cake and power tools.

I’d been trying so hard not to feel more than friendship – desperately trying to put him back in the column that Noah still sat in – and whilst Mitch saw me as his sister-bestie, it was moderately bearable. It wasn’t fun, nor would I recommend it, but I could manage.

But that changed in a moment.

It was only a couple of months before their Change. A few weeks before their sixteenth birthday, the day they head to the Glade and go through what I’d recently experienced. The awful pain, the agony, the awesome rush of our first change to a wolf. The first time you run with your pack through the trees with your Alpha parents by your side.

We were in the Phelan garage. Mitch was finishing off a beautiful bench seat, his first project beyond the countless coffee and end tables his mother was running out of room for. That bench took weeks of sanding, sawing and swearing to get it to its almost-finished state. Noah was out on Alpha training and I should have been at home. But it seems I have some masochistic tendencies, because I couldn’t stay away from the sweet pain of being with Mitch.

Mitch was talking me through the creative process. Words like maple and birch, quarter-inch chisel and the benefits of a drop saw over a circular saw (you learn a lot about power tools when you are determinedly NOT in love with one of your best friends) flew over my head.

Most of my responses involved no more than ‘ah ha’ and ‘I see’ as Mitch continued to talk wood, because my attention had been on the biceps bulging under his dusty black shirt, the shoulders bunching beneath his t-shirt, wanting to flick the sawdust from his hair…okay, wanting to just run my fingers through those dark chocolate locks. I jammed my hands into my lonely jeans, knowing I should go home, that this isn’t the right place to be, no matter how much I felt that it was.

Mitch paused, like he realized I wasn’t really paying attention. As my already overheated body had threatened to blush, I finally looked at the bench seat rather than its creator. My head had tilted to the side. “It’s too tall.”

Mitch stepped back, standing beside me. The smell of dust and the cinnamon and citrus scent that I’d suddenly developed an addiction to had hit my newly sharpened senses. I opted to breathe through my mouth…on every second breath. He’d looked down at me, dust motes hitching a ride on the streams of light spearing through the window, and he’d paused.

My breath vaporized, wishing he’d look away, loving spending time in that deepwater gaze. But he’d just turned back to the bench, brows knitting a smidgen.

That wasn’t the moment.

His finger had come up to rub his bottom lip. “It does look like it has moose legs.” He’d turned to me, blue eyes making my heart trip. “Help me turn it over.”

Yep, I should have gone home.

Instead, I stepped forward and we’d stood side by side as we gripped the base and carefully turned it over. It was heavier than I expected so I was glad for my recent Were strength. The bench had tilted back, back rest slowly coming down to the concrete floor, heading for a gentle, scratchless landing.

Until it slipped. The back too-long-legs had scraped forward and we had all of a heartbeat to slow it down and land it softly. Mitch grunted as I tightened my arms. We reigned it in like consummate removalists and it had settled on the garage floor with barely a bump, but the effort cost me. I tipped sideways, one leg crossing over the other as my balance took a brief siesta, and discovered in the weeks that I’d been avoiding touching Mitch that he’d filled out. Mitch frowned when I bumped into him, my shoulder connecting with his chest, my hair brushing his cheek. I bounced off that hot, dusty, familiar but oh-so-new body with the speed even a Were would be impressed by.

I looked away before he saw the stain on my cheeks that matched my hair. “Oops, sorry.”

“No probs.” He cleared his throat in the dusty silence.

He paused then stepped away and slipped on his protective glasses. “Stand back while I trim them down.”

That too, was not the moment.

I stepped back to where I should have stayed, heat I’m not supposed to be feeling flying through my veins. I wanted to rub my shoulder, knowing that rather than rubbing the heat that still tingled there to make it go away, what I’d actually be doing is trying to preserve the sensation.

Sweet cheeses, then he bent over, dark hair flopping onto his brow as denim stretched over places I’m not supposed to be looking, and measured. He took forever. I mean, did it have to be THAT precise? He’d measured, marked, then measured again before moving to the next leg.

Noah took that moment to join us. My brain had been relieved, but my stubborn heart had wanted to keep my eyes on that backside. He’d taken in Mitch leaning over the bench lying on its back and quirked a dark blond brow. “I thought it was done.”

Mitch grunted but didn’t look up. “Legs were too long.”

“Didn’t I say that yesterday?”

I’d given him a smug grin. “Ah yes, but I said it today.”

Noah slipped his arm around my shoulder and I leaned into the comfort and familiarity of our uncomplicated connection. “Either way, he listened to the wisdom of his elders.”

Mitch had looked up, mouth open with a retort to the old joke that seven minutes didn’t really count, taken in the arm that took that moment to give me a squeeze around my shoulder and clamped his mouth shut again. He frowned before mumbling something even my Were ears couldn’t pick up and turned back to his bench seat.

Still not the moment.

I looked up at Noah and he gave me a wink and a grin before heading back out. In hindsight, Noah had seen through me and figured this out long before Mitch.

It turns out it was the moment I didn’t do anything special. Mitch wasn’t even looking at me, we weren’t even touching.

It was a moment just like any moment.

Normal. Every day. Routine. Regular.

The whine of a circular saw filled the silence. Mitch squatted to do the bottom legs, focused intently on the black line he’d drawn, and cut the first leg. Then the second square of wood fell to join the first. He stood up and I was able to release the air from my screaming lungs. How much is a girl supposed to endure? First bending then squatting.

The third landed with a thunk. Mitch never looked up, I was so sure I was safe. He was lost in his world of wood cutting, I was clawing my way back from the place I wasn’t supposed to be. The whirring saw blade had headed down to the last bench leg.

And THAT was the moment. The moment Mitch felt it too. A teeny-tiny millisecond.

Do you know how I know? Because Mitch cut that final leg half an inch too short. Like someone, or something, had struck him he jerked, slipped and missed the line.

And that was the moment I ran. As his gaze headed up I headed out. I didn’t want to see what would be in them, what could happen next. Alright, that’s like saying a kid doesn’t want to catch Santa. I wanted to, so bad.

Which just propelled me out of there faster.

Chapter Three

Now it Gets Complicated

Not that I could do anything about it, and that’s what made it torture. My brain wished I could go back and choose to go home. No, to go even further back and choose a different day to go to the Glade, to maybe have taken the girls on my own. But my heart loves it, and it has a totally different idea of what I should do about it. Unfortunately, I also discover my self-control muscle has the strength of a dead moth. Which means rather than spending less time with him like I should, I keep doing everything we’ve always done, but with a whole new layer of breathtaking discovery.

Today we’re at my place, studying in the dining room. Or trying to, anyway. Even though our books are spread out, our laptops powered up, not a lot of learning is happening. In part because my siblings are a rabble that keeps overflowing from the lounge room and somersaulting past our chairs. In part because Noah keeps cruising YouTube for hilarious clips of ‘real’ Werewolf sightings.

But mostly because of the distracting way Mitch’s eyes seek mine, deepwater blue deeper and bluer every time. Asking me the question I want to answer in a much different way. It takes every muscle locked in place to keep me from diving in.

“Did you see the latest Marvel is out?”

I drag my gaze back to my English essay. “Yeah, reviews weren’t awesome though.”

“He has a cameo.”

Son of a crumbcake, he knows me too well. I shrug, pretending I don’t care that he knows that any mention of Captain America has me leaping for the car keys, that I don’t give a happy meal that he just propped his elbow on the table and cupped his chin, leaning forward. I ignore the sensation of soaring in my chest as the distance between us shrinks.

“Maybe we should check it out.”

Ah, no. I glance up at Noah, but he’s focused and grinning at his laptop. I look back at Mitch to find his smile losing its momentum. As deepwater blue develops breathtaking currents my own smile dies on my lips. Definitely no. Yes. YES. YES!

But I can’t.

“Yeah sure.” Mitch’s eyes light up like fireworks. “Noah, you coming?”

Noah looks up, taking a few seconds to register what’s been said. He glances from me to Mitch, then back again. I’m not sure if it’s the guilt that I’m using my childhood bestie as a buffer or the light dying in Mitch’s eyes, but there’s a sensation that feels like sour milk in my belly. I look away, knowing that I, we, can’t go on like this.

“Tara, can you change Christa for me?” I glance through to the lounge room where Mom is sitting in her rocker, grimacing as little Breanna climbs her big belly like a mountain. Flora is screaming like a stuck chipmunk because there isn’t any room to join her. Christa streaks past, wild red hair bouncing, her wet diaper hanging precariously on her chubby hips.

Relief has me shooting up and in the lounge, diaper in hand, before Mom can blink. “Sure.”

Noah chooses that moment to do a Houdini, something about leaving a book in his truck — for the studying he wasn’t doing.

But the determination I’ve always admired in Mitch rears its unhelpful head. “Need a hand with that?”

I nab Christa on her return run, heading for a clear space on the lounge room floor. “I got it.”

I need to think of my pack. My responsibility.

From nowhere, Mr. Puddles whacks me in the face. I really regret buying that darned duck. It looked so fluffy and yellow and cute sitting on the toy store shelf. There was no way anyone could have known it was possessed. Mr. Puddles hits the ground and Christa keeps going, her diaper dangerously close to giving into gravity.

Dark brows high, Mitch comes to kneel beside me. “I can tell.”

Mitch grabs Mr. Puddles, lays him on his back and takes another diaper. “Mr. Puddles, hold still.” Furry yellow wings flop and flap on the ground as Mr. Puddles makes a darned good show of resisting. Thank Thor his squeaker died on about the third tumble through the washing machine.

Christa’s back in an instant, wide eyed and laughing. Mitch turns to my little sister. “Christa, can you show him how it’s done?”

With Mitch as puppeteer, Mr. Puddles jumps to his feet and makes a show of trying to run away. Mitch makes such a comedy of hauling the stuffed toy back that I have to stifle my giggles as I tut and frown at the duck’s irresponsible behavior. Man I wish I could bottle the citrus cinnamon deliciousness beside me.

Suffice to say, Christa lays down, talking Mr. Puddles through everything he has to do to get his diaper changed. When we’re done, the duck has an over-sized white butt, Christa is no longer in danger of water bombing the house…and I’m another five miles deeper in love with Mitch.

Mitch leans back, those competent strong hands resting on his thighs, currents of blue turning from laughter to something more. Emotions start to swirl around us, a vortex that I have so little control over.

I look up to find his smile losing momentum. “Hey, you want to —”

Dad chooses that moment to come in, like he sensed his plans were under threat. Whatever he sees, me leaning into citrus and cinnamon, Mitch pulling me in with nothing but a look, has his bushy red brows flat-lining.

“Tara.”

I try really hard not to jump the jump of the guilty, but I straighten and turn, definitely lacking grace or finesse. I look up, and seeing as Dad is the size of Everest, it takes a good few seconds for my hazel eyes to meet his. “Yes, Dad?”

Dad crosses his arms, red bushy brows coming down, practically blending with his lion mane beard. “Let’s head out.”

“It’s not too early?”

I knew today was our monthly visit, but we’ve always gone on twilight. Never during the late afternoon like he’s suggesting.

That has Dad’s brows heading back up. I feel myself still. I’ve just questioned him…in front of Mitch. And as much as he’s my childhood friend, Dad would never forget Mitch’s defining characteristic. He’s a Phelan…and a Beta Phelan at that. I don’t look at Mitch as I shoot to my feet. “I’ll get stuff organized.”

Dad grunts and heads to the garage.

“Bye, Mr. Phelan.”

Dad pauses at Mitch’s words. He turns in the hallway, his big body making the space look narrow. “Goodbye, Mitch.”

I look away. If it had been Noah, Dad would have thanked him for his help, I have a sneaking suspicion he may have even considered smiling. But Mitch isn’t the Alpha heir, and one thing Dad believes and enforces is the hierarchy. With that he turns and leaves.

Mitch studies me for a moment. We don’t need to say anything. Mitch and Noah have spent enough time in my house to know what it’s like. I’ve spent enough time at theirs to know it’s not the norm. But I’m also one of the few that understands why.

“You —”

I put my hand up. “I know, we’ve been over it.”

Although they know Dad’s thou-shalt-obey-and-you-don’t-get-to-question tendencies, neither Mitch nor Noah like it. But it’s a testament to the power of our friendship that even though it pees them off they still come over, knowing I need to help out with my younger sisters.

I walk to the door, knowing there’s no point going over old material, and Mitch follows. I’m just about to open it when Noah comes barging through. He pulls up short of bowling me over, understanding dawning on his face. “Party’s over huh?”

I flash a smile, knowing there’s no joy behind it. “Yeah, gotta go do firstborn duty.”

Noah quirks a brow, seeing as we’re technically in the same boat. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

His words have been dipped and drowned in sarcasm. We’re both firstborns. The only thing that differentiates us is our gender. And how our Alpha fathers define that…

I turn away. I’ve never been one to moan about the glass half empty. I step back, letting Mitch pass through, knowing he’s trying to catch my gaze. But I pretend my head’s already in the clearing I’ll be heading to, giving a distracted wave as I turn and walk away.

The door shuts on Noah’s words. “When I’m Alpha, there won’t be any —”

I head to the garage, because I’ll be crying over the milk that’s been spilt from that half-full glass if I let myself imagine the ending to that sentence.

The walk out our backyard and into the forest is silent, like it always is. Dad is an Alpha of few words. To be honest, there really isn’t much to say. Dad has taught us all from a young age our role and responsibility in the pack. His role and responsibility as the Alpha. You don’t need words to do what needs to be done.

Unfortunately, that means way too much thinking time. My artist’s mind flashes all the images of Mitch, getting less and less subtle. The next canvas has Noah looking at me with his thoughtful, serious gaze. How long before this futile attraction causes a strain on the one pillar in my life I’d always assumed was unbreakable?

As we head deeper and deeper, the trunks becoming thicker and closer together, the solution that germinated not long after the complication arose shoots off another root. Every time Mitch asks, every time Noah looks, each and every stinkin’-freakin’-bleepin’ time Dad frowns, it grows a little. Every one of those moments fertilizer for the idea I was doing my darnedest to ignore.

I almost stumble straight into Dad’s boulder sized back when he stops. I pull myself up, knowing he wouldn’t be impressed with a scatterbrained firstborn. I suck in a calming breath. We’ve arrived.

Not many people know I got my artistic side from my Dad. If I were to count them my guess is it would be one – me. His Dad would have known, probably his older brother. But they never got to see what Dad’s created here. Ironically, they’re the ones who inspired it.

Deep in the forest, surrounded by pines, it stands. Partially formed, etched into a boulder the size bigger than the mini-van Mom drives. In layers of grey, light as dawn and dark as dusk, the beginning of a wolf has been carved into the stone. It’s magnificent, breathtaking and humongous.

Once a month Dad works on it. On the fifth of every month. On the day he lost them.

There are few secrets amongst Weres, there are not enough of us to lose track of any relevant information. Everyone knows how Dad lost his brother and his father. That he was the second son, that he was never the Alpha heir.

But they don’t know the ripple effect it had.

I remember Grandfather Garrett. He was strong, powerful and not big in the smiling department. Garrett Junior was though. He loved life and he loved fun. He was the one that gave me piggy backs and sneaky Twinkies when no one was looking. As Dad scrapes and scratches away at the stone, the hardest medium an artist could mold a creation from, he does the one thing most people don’t see much of. He talks. He tells me about the times he went on Alpha duty with his father, while his older brother was in Athens, and fixed newly widowed Adelle’s roof when it caved during a storm. He tells me what a great feeling it was to be the first to expand the Channon pack when Mom got pregnant. He tells me how it was Grandfather Garrett’s dream for the Channons to be strong, possibly the strongest.

Over the year he’s been bringing me I’ve figured out all the things he hasn’t told me. One, Garrett Junior, my uncle, learned to fly a plane as soon he was old enough so he could take his forever smiling personality anywhere but Wilmot. Two, Dad loved being the one Grandfather Garrett depended on. And three? Grandfather didn’t live long enough to see his second son achieve so much for his pack. When he got the news that Garrett Junior died when his small plane went down over some remote corner of our planet, he sat down and pretty much didn’t get back up. It took a month — Garret Junior was lost to the Peruvian Jungle on the fifth of May, Garrett Senior let out his last relieved breath on the fifth of June so he could go join him.

The memorial is beautiful. Dad uses the natural lines of the rock, like this slab of stone was always supposed to be a wolf. With nothing but a hammer and chisel, month after month, he creates what he wants his pack to be.

Without pausing, as I sit and watch the rhythmic tap, tap, scrape, he asks. “Why stone, Tara?”

“Because it’s strong.”

Tap, tap, scrape. “What makes it strong?”

“Because all the parts create one.”

He steps back, surveying the flowing line of the shoulder he’s etching out. “Yes. And when something is strong?”

“It endures.”

“Exactly.” He says like we haven’t gone through this script on a monthly basis. “It outlasts the rest.”

“The Channons will always stand strong, Dad.”

Tap, tap, scrape. Dad once again loses himself in his creation. He’s also never said that building his wolf memorial is a metaphor. An Alpha molding his pack. I’m not sure if he realizes it himself. But I know. I know that’s what Dad wants to do, to build something bigger and stronger and more powerful than Weres thought possible.

Now that would sure show Garrett Senior.

“Tara.”

I’m startled from the hypnotic tap, tap, scrape. “Yeah?”

“You are a good, strong Channon.”

I glance down so Dad doesn’t see what those words do to me. A firstborn isn’t supposed to happy dance.

“As a firstborn you know your place and your responsibility.”

That brings the happy dance to a halt. Sure I’m a first born, but I’m a girl, which basically makes me a princess. All the responsibility of a leader, with none of the power.

Tap, tap, scrape. “You need to know. If this child is a girl…”

I look back up, we’re deviating from our standard script, and I have no idea where this is going. With seven girls, the odds aren’t great.

“I’ll name you Alpha heir.”

You could bowl me over with the specks of rock dust that catch on the breeze. “Alpha heir?”

The tapping and scraping never stops, like this isn’t some life changing conversation. “Yes. It will be a significant responsibility, but one I feel I have prepared you well for.”

I’m glad he isn’t looking at me, because the cyclone of emotions on my face isn’t firstborn material. If the baby is a girl…a disappointment that Dad experienced with me and has been repeated six times after that. It’s what’s driven Dad to have child after child. To wear Mom into the ground.

But if it’s a girl, I would be named the Alpha heir. I would get a say. I would have the power to choose!

I keep my butt where it is, my hands from fist pumping, and my heart from hollering to the sky. The solution that had taken root shrivels a little as the possibility for a future, one I hadn’t let myself dream of, begins to coalesce in vibrant color.

“As the firstborn you will lead the Channons. You will bond with one who will continue what I have built.”

Which technically was always my role, but now I would get some choice. “I’ll always put the pack first, Dad.”

He stops and turns. The silence frames his words. “I know.”

Dad glances back at the partially carved rock. “Maybe today memorializes the future.” I look up at his lion mane face, wondering what he’s suggesting. “Want to go for a run?”

I can’t help the smile that finally breaks free. “Ah, rhetorical.”

Dad grins in that big, bushy beard of his.

We head back to the house, silent as always, but for the first since THE moment I start to paint a new painting in my mind. It’s bright, open and awash in light. It’s a painting of hope.

We get to the house and Dad indicates with his head we’ll walk around. With a wink (yes, a wink!) he makes a line for his truck. Dad’s playing hooky?

I can’t help but smile; this is a side of Dad I haven’t seen. We climb in and drive off without even telling Mom where we’re going. Silence hugs us once again as we head to the Glade, but this time it’s lighter. Not quite so serious. It holds the promise of a future I want to be part of.

We’re almost there, zooming down the highway, when Dad slows. He’s seen what I’ve seen.

Holy brown bananas…

There, just meters away from the turn-off, a sleek grey car is pulled off the highway. In front of it there’s a man, in a suit, banging in a sign. Our slow movement forward gives ample time for our sharp Were eyes to take in what it says.

FOR SALE

And to process the words stamped over those two.

UNDER OFFER

What the —

Dad jerks the wheel and we pull over, braking hard over the gravel. He’s out of the car before I’ve got my seat belt off. I have to hurry to follow his gigantor strides.

The man’s eyes widen as he takes in the size of my father striding toward him. He straightens, keeping his hammer close to his chest.

Dad’s voice is quiet and controlled as he asks the question. “What are you doing?”

Mr. Real Estate swallows. “Ah, putting up a for sale sign.”

I roll my eyes, thanks Captain Obvious. Dad’s frown has moved into the land of ferocious. “You’ve made a mistake. This is public land, it’s not for sale.”

Another swallow tightens Mr. Real Estate’s throat. “This lot has been released by the federal government with recent legislation change.” He straightens, gaining momentum. “It opens up acres of land for state or private use, agriculture, tourism. Just think about the opportunities.”

Private use!

Dad sucks in a breath, stepping forward. The man goes from confident sales pitch back to cowering. Smart choice if you ask me. “How is this possible?”

The man steps back and with a bit of distance, maybe because he’s closer to his car, angles his chin. “The bill has passed sir, the land went up for sale a week ago.”

I frown, how did we not know about this? How is it already under offer? My Were senses pick up the scent of something fishy.

Dad’s eyes flicker to the two words on the sign that feel like nails in coffin. “Who?”

“I can’t disclose that sort of information, sir.”

Dad steps forward, looming over the idiot. I know this next question won’t be asked quietly. “Who?”

The man ducks like he can avoid the tornado of anger that Dad roars at him. Pretending he has some pride left he straightens, tugs at his jacket and raises his chin again. “Like I said, that information is confidential.”

And with that he power walks — not quite a run but certainly no hanging around to see what the angry bear will do next — straight to his car.

The car’s brake lights have disappeared around a bend before Dad moves again.

He looks at me and his hazel eyes have turned to stone.

This is bad. Uber bad.

Chapter Four

It’s Decided

Our house, full at the best of times, overflows with Weres the next day. All Channons, all angry at the threat we never considered we’d have to face. The Glade borders a national park, firmly nestled in a pocket of federal land. It’s the safest place it could be short of us owning it ourselves, which has never been possible, nor affordable.

They all crowd in our lounge, frowns and crossed arms abounding.

There are few females here. The Channons align themselves closely with their animal side and the power and strength of males. Mom sits behind Dad, looking even more pale than usual. There’s the odd wife, me and Adelle. Adelle is noticeable for two reasons. She’s a widow, so isn’t here with a mate, just her son Seth who’s a few years older than me. And she never left the sixties. Which is hilarious, because she’s my Dad’s age so she’s never actually been there. It doesn’t stop her from wearing a lot of crochet tops and tie-dyed skirts, or from devoting herself to any good cause she comes across.

She also breaks conventions like they’re spaghetti sticks. Slicing through the somber mood she wraps me in incense and smiles. “Tara, the Change suits you.”

I hug her back; when your mom is permanently tired or diaper changing, you don’t get a lot of these. “Thanks Adelle. How’s the raptor sanctuary going?”

“Wonderfully darling girl, they do such amazing work there.”

Seth stands back, arms crossed but the smile that you can’t help but sprout around Adelle growing on his face. “Yes well, you did raise five thousand dollars, Mom.”

Adelle pats his cheek as she breezes past. “With the help of some very committed people dear.”

Seth’s glance as he follows his mother into the lounge room is one I’ve seen many times before. Exasperated, willing to indulge her modesty, proud.

With the last of us jammed into the lounge room, Dad fills his big barrel chest with a breath. It’s all everyone needs to know that he’s about to talk and the room falls silent. He looks around at the representatives of his pack. “You all know why we’re here and what we have to stop.”

The room explodes as emotion overflows. Chris, one of the ones who was at the head of the pack when I ran with them for the first time not so long ago, snarls. “Greedy bastards.”

Keith, an old grizzled Were, steps forward. “We can’t lose the Glade. It’s sacred.” He thumps his fist into his palm. “It’s our heritage.”

Seth crosses his arms. “We can’t exactly list it as a culturally sensitive site, can we?”

Adelle places her hand on Seth’s arm, but to be fair, he’s simply aired the crux of our issue. We can’t fight for what the Glade really stands for without risking our secret.

Chris turns back to Dad. “It’s probably loggers, they’ve been trying to get their hands on any land they can for years.”

Keith snarls. “And buying it in secret is just what the lying cheats would do.”

Grunts of agreement rise around the room and quite a few Weres shuffle. I feel my hands fist, the fury that Dad has been venting all morning pulsing in my palms.

Dad nods, silent as his pack vents their anger, waiting for them to say their piece.

Adelle, the one female voice with the courage to believe its equal, asks the question we’re here to answer. “How do we stop them, Kurt?”

The room goes quiet as everyone turns to Dad. Dad never falters under the weight of those stares and Alpha responsibility. “Adam Phelan is talking to the mayor to see if he can find any legal loopholes.”

Seth shakes his head. “That could take months.”

Everyone’s silent. We don’t have weeks let alone months.

“The Phelans have always been peacemakers, negotiators.” Standing at the back of the room something tightens in my chest. Why does he make that sound like a bad thing? “But we need to act now.”

A few feet shuffle, a couple of backs straighten but no one speaks. They’re waiting to see what we’ll do.

Dad nods, a slow, very deliberate action. “People need to know. We’ll make some noise, go public, get the media involved.” Dad isn’t shrinking, he’s growing, practically expanding with this newfound purpose. “They’ll discover the Channons are a power you don’t want to come up against.”

The chests around the room expand too, heads nodding, mouths tightening. The Channons have a plan. Hands come up, people offering to do pamphlet drops, Chris works at the local newspaper so he can run an article. Adelle bustles as she coordinates a day and time for us to protest. Within half an hour the testament of the power of the pack grows in my lounge room. The loggers will never be able to overcome the community outcry they’ll face.

Dad stands at the door as the representatives of each family leave. Adelle slips her arm around my shoulder. “Tara, I need you to do something for me.”

I look at her expectantly.

“I need some placards.”

I nod, happy to be using my skills. “What do you want them to say?”

Adelle drums her fingers on her chin. “Weres were here first?”

I smile. “Which would be great if it wasn’t for those secrecy laws.”

“I thought you’d say that. How about ‘protect what you love’?”

“I like it. I’ll start on it tonight.”

Adelle pats my arm as she moves away. “I knew I could depend on you.”

It’s only once everyone is gone that Mom speaks. She’s so quiet, the proverbial wallflower, her voice a strained whisper. “Kurt?”

Dad, his head still with his pack, doesn’t hear her at first. Maybe it’s my quick footed walk to her side that catches his attention, maybe he registers the strain in her voice when she says his name again, but he’s instantly beside her. “Lara.”

Mom looks up, the significance of what’s about to happen shining from her soft blue eyes. I’m just not sure if it’s the fact that this is the last pregnancy she’ll have to go through, or that this could be the time she finally bears him a son. “It’s time.”

Dad, that solid exterior actually a little ruffled, practically carries Mom to the car. Mom’s last labor was only three hours — her body knows how to pop ‘em out by now.

“Tara.” He races past, grabbing the bag that’s been sitting by the front door for the past three weeks. Packed with what it’s always been packed with — Mom’s clothes, diapers, the hand-me-down pink grow suit, the never-been-used blue one.

“I’ve got it Dad. The little ones are in bed, we’ll be fine.”

His hazel gaze catches mine for a moment, strained and so, so plainly heart-wrenching. This is his last opportunity for the Alpha heir he’s always wanted to prove he could have.

Once the door is shut I look at it, not knowing what my heart is wishing for right now, but not willing to look too closely to find out. I turn and head down the hall, typing as I walk. Soz, can’t come over tonight. Mom just went to the hospital.

Mitch, Noah and I had agreed to meet up after our respective pack meetings to compare notes. There’s a bling almost simultaneously from our group chat. What are you going to name your all girls baseball team?

Then another bling. The Channon Chooks?

And another. Although if any of you take after your dad it’ll be the Channon Chewbaccas!

I shake my head, Noah’s having an entire conversation with himself. Mitch’s response has my eyes widening. Great news. We’ll come to you then.

Crapbuckets. My heart rate picks up a notch. I learnt many years ago, right about the time we were six and I gave Noah a haircut, that I’m really bad at lying. But I don’t get a chance because my cell dings again.

Can’t little bro, found out I couldn’t hang out anyway. Dad needs me.

Which is code for Alpha duty, probably something to do with this latest development. My sigh of relief bounces off the hallway walls. That would have meant just me and Mitch. Alone.

As I stand at the back door I type quickly. All good, I’m all settled in for a quiet one anyway.

Cool, let us know when you’ve got the last member of the Channon Cheetahs.

On the back patio I wait, but there’s nothing. No response from Mitch.

When I don’t hear anything back I tell myself it’s a good thing.

I head to my easel, letting the familiar feeling of being centered wash over me. I’ve created with color since the moment my chubby fingers could wrap around a crayon, but discovering the marvelous invention they call paint was a life changer for me. I never got into the abstract — there’s no existential, metaphysical level to my paintings. I use nothing but the colors of life, I paint what I love. Try it peeps – capturing the beauty that makes up the world onto a canvas calms your farm like nothing else.

I start on the placards, I really do. But once the colors start talking to me, pointing out how the browns love to connect with greens, that capturing the color of sunlight is a challenge I love to step up to, I swap canvases. The image of the Glade, on THE day, is still so bright and strong in my mind. Within the space of a breath I’m lost. Lost in a world of possibilities that I can create, in a world where I am master…in colors like citrus and cinnamon.

“I like it.”

“Holy snap dragons!” My paintbrush goes flying and I almost drop the glorified piece of wood I call my palette. Mitch is leaning in the door way, arms crossed, hot bod leaning against the door jamb. “What are you trying to do, scare the Were out of me?”

He grins and steps forward, making me wonder how long he’s been there. “Sorry.”

I snort as I bend to pick up the paintbrush that’s now left a green splatter on the floor — he doesn’t sound sorry. I grab a rag and swipe at it and as I stand two things hit me. Mitch’s eyes telling me that he watched the bending over, possibly almost as intensely as I watch him, followed closely by the knowledge that we’re alone.

As in no one else, unaccompanied by the protection of a chaperon, as in I think everyone else just disappeared off the face of this planet kind of alone.

My heart starts to thump and I’m forced to swallow before I can speak. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to know what’s wrong.”

That has me freezing. He’s guessed? “Nothing’s wrong.”

His head quirks as even two words can’t pass my lips with the ring of truth. He holds up his phone. “You wanted a quiet night in? Just tell me, is it terminal?”

Relief has me smiling. “I’m not sick. Just tired.”

Mitch’s eyes crinkle with concern. “The stuff about the Glade?”

I blink, knowing that’s what’s supposed to be on my mind. The images of the Channons in the lounge, angry and unsettled, plants my brain firmly back with my pack. “It’s not good.”

“We’ll stop them, you’ll see.”

I look back at the painting. What part of me was preserving our heritage, and what part was preserving the memory of when I fell for Mitch? “It’s too important not to.”

Mitch takes the final steps in and even though I’m on the back porch without the boundaries of walls the air around me shrinks. I step away, towards the placards Adelle requested. “I’m making these. It looks like we’ll be protesting.”

Mitch rubs his lower lip in the same way his father and brother do, but somehow it only manages to look sexy on him. “Great idea.”

“Yeah, I might need to borrow some of Adelle’s outfits and start living in trees.” I whip up a smile a game-show hostess would be jealous of. Keep it light, kick him out. Then I’m not tempted to find out if those lips are as delicious as they look and destroy what I know has been my fate from the moment the Phelan boys were born. Unless Mom has a girl…I have to consciously throw that thought from my mind. I won’t be the person who wishes away my father’s only desire.

But the thought is like a freakin’ boomerang. Unless it’s a girl…

Mitch moves over to one of my older paintings. It’s a scene of the river we canoed in spring through summer. It’s when I first started experimenting with wet on wet, a fascinating technique that creates layers and eddies of color. Where you can show how deep water can run, how much mystery it holds.

“I love your paintings.” He turns to me. “I can spend ages thinking I’ve figured them out, and then bam,” those blue eyes hold me hostage as he takes a step closer. I need him to stop but I can’t find the words to tell him, “You get hit with something you didn’t see before.”

Jeepers. Not light, not light at all. I swallow. “Ah, thanks.”

Mitch takes another step and there really isn’t enough air in this outdoor room. “Have you ever had that?”

I blink. “Had what?”

Mitch moves, filling my senses as he closes the distance between us. Citrus and cinnamon. Deepwater blue. Lips twitching like they’d like to smile but there’s a bigger, deeper emotion taking over. “See something in a new light?” His voice dips and drops. “Or someone.”

I swallow, wishing I could run away and knowing I’m lying. Mitch’s eyes are searching mine and in that moment, I forget to hide, I glory in the heat and passion that’s leaping and surging between us.

“Tara.” Sweet snapples, my name sounds good on his lips, colored by the emotion I can see mirrored in his eyes. “I need to ask you —”

My phone rings, practically puncturing the tension that has built up around us. The breath that had dissolved from my body finds life again. I step back, my mind whirring with how close I just came to betraying my father, every other cell screaming for me to go back. “I need to get that.”

Mitch’s lips purse but he nods. I step back again, trying to make sure I sever the emotions that had been twining around us. I glance down at my phone, my eyes stinging with the physical pain. Dad’s name is flashing like a digital warning bell across my screen.

Unless…

I swallow, not knowing what I’m wishing for anymore. I’m pretty darned proud that my voice is almost normal when I answer. “So I’m a big sister again, huh?”

“Tara.” Dad chokes up, at a loss for words.

My hand slackens and I have to consciously tighten it so I don’t drop the phone. A second later I have to do the same thing with my knees. Dad doesn’t need to say anything else.

His tone says it all.

I now know what my future will be.

Chapter Five

The Solution

The moment Kurt Junior was born my options were slashed down to one. As my heart screamed there must be another way, I knew there wasn’t. I was now nothing more than the first-born daughter of the Alpha. And so I made the decision that had to be made for all of us.

I can’t be around Mitch.

And I’ve had legitimate reasons to avoid him for a whole week — Mom’s got a new baby and six other children she needs help with. It’s understandable that I answer texts with ‘can’t talk’ and that my phone calls are cut short as I chase after younger siblings. It’s totally reasonable that I stay home — alone — every night because I’m tired.

Everyone else’s life continues. Dad is so happy; he has his son. Mom is so happy; her child bearing years are over. My sisters love doting on the one they know is so special.

Thankfully, no one notices that I am quietly and desperately miserable.

Of course then Dad had to organize a celebration party. This included all of the Channons, but also the Phelans. I know it’s just as important that he show off his son to our neighboring pack. The ones who are friends, but in some subtle way I’ve never understood, a threat.

So now I’m getting ready to see him. I look in the mirror at the hollow girl looking back at me, wearing the same dress I wore to the last family get-together. The statue staring back at me knows. She knows I miss Mitch. The laughter, the friendship. The potential that was radiating from his eyes, his mouth…

She also misses Noah and the Phelans and life being easy.

But it’s unmistakable in the form that dominates the mirror — I’m the firstborn, but a girl. Which means responsibility and little voice. So I dress my younger sisters and run plates of food out to the back yard, the whole time counting down the minutes; anticipation and dread kung-fu fighting in my stomach.

I know the moment they arrive, because I’ve been skulking in the kitchen, pretending to slice cucumbers, but really spying on everyone filing through the door, ooing and aahing over my baby brother. Mitch’s parents come in first, Adam and Beth saying all the right things as my Dad’s chest threatens to explode. Noah is all Alpha-heir as he shakes hands. Mitch does the niceties but the moment they’re done his eyes start scanning.

My breath sucks in and I go to move but I’m not quick enough. He finds me and I freeze. Sweet smurfs, across the distance I register two things. He looks good. Really darned good. And I’ve known him long enough to know he looks determined.

Like he’s winding in a line he starts walking towards me, and I’m relieved to see that Noah joins him.

“Hey guys.” I smile brightly.

Noah engulfs me in a hug. “Long time no see. I was worried you got that same haircut when we were ten and wouldn’t show yourself in public.”

I laugh and it constricts my chest. “No way, lesson learned that red hair doesn’t like to be turned green.”

I turn to Mitch. Please, please don’t make me touch him. I haven’t decided if it’s a blessing or a curse that I never got to experience that delight. Sure, I’ve hugged Mitch, I’ve curled up to watch TV with him. But now, since THE moment, a touch would be so different, so much more.

“Hi, Mitch.”

“You look good, Tara.”

I curtsy, subtly taking a step backward as I do.

Noah’s brows tangle quizzically. Maybe not so subtle…He glances at Mitch then back at me.

There’s a squeal then a splash then a wail. “Taaaraaa.”

Right there and then, despite all the jams I’ve had to pull him out of, I thank the gods of stuffed animals for the day Mr. Puddles came into my life. “Gotta go.”

And I’m outta there faster than a Were with its tail on fire.

The rest of the party I mingle with my pack and with the Phelans, always as far from Mitch as I can. I catch glimpses of him, laughing with Noah, talking to Dana. He’s there when his mom coos over Kurt Junior. Once he catches me looking. Those blue eyes grab me and the people around me fade and blur. When the moment hangs on longer than it really should — because I can’t bring myself to move — his lips tip up. Something moves in those deepwater eyes, and it propels me. That flash is why I’m doing this.

I can’t give him hope. I’m grieving for the future that has played out in the wishful thinking part of my brain. I’m hurting for what can never be. Mitch needs to believe it was never a possibility.

I spend the entire night acting like I’ve orchestrated this whole party. The moment a plate is down to only a couple of sausages I head inside for more. The pitchers of juice are like bottomless wells as I keep them topped up. Mom gets to sit and bask in the glow of her pack’s pride as I feed, clean and care for my siblings.

I see Mitch about five times more than I’d like. The first, I pretend I don’t see him, despite the fact I know every move he makes. The second time I pass him I’m juggling two plates of salad. When he offers to help I shake my head and point out I’ve got the Were strength to do this and keep going before he can reply. By the third and fourth he’s starting to frown. But I finally put having so many little sisters to good use — like when Flora needs her steak cut up and Christa conveniently needs a diaper change.

The fifth was the hardest. Mitch had materialized from the crowd as I headed back to the kitchen. That determined look hadn’t left his frowning eyes. “Do you have a second?”

I hadn’t stopped walking. “Ah, the coleslaw actually ran out, I’m going to whip up another batch.”

Mitch’s dark brows lift. I don’t think he’s ever seen me make coleslaw half way through a party. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself make coleslaw ever. “I wanted to talk.”

I flash a neon smile. “Not sure I’ll get a chance tonight. Seems having a boy in the family really brings on the pack appetite. Your poor mother when she had two at the same time!”

I’m blabbering as I walk, away from the kitchen where most people would make coleslaw, back out to the safety of the crowd.

Mitch’s mouth opens, but Tara-of-the-chatterbox-clan is in full swing. “Have you seen how adorable little Kurt is? Dad’s already picked out his first bike, his first car and what he’s gonna wear on his first Change. Oh hi Aunty Cheryl, I know, isn’t he the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen?”

I feel Mitch melt back into the crowd and I’m glad I’m spared the look on his face. Angry I could have coped with. Angry I saw when I reversed Dad’s truck over his cordless drill. But disappointed, even hurt, that would have cut through my veneer like a blade to a canvas.

When Mr. Puddles and I make it through to the end of the night with our stuffing still intact I allow myself to relax. I’m not there when the Phelans are one of the last to leave. Like the coward I never knew I was, I watch from the kitchen window, tucked into the side of the fridge so I can’t be seen. Mitch and Noah talk at the car and I quickly head to the back of the house in case those seeking eyes find me again.

On the back patio I start to return my easels back to their usual spots now that everyone has left. I’m too tired, mentally and physically, to paint, but the comfort of my little area calls to me. Paintings I can control; they are a world I get to create just the way I want them. I wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time with the beauty and colors I had some say in.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

I spin, heart thumping with surprise and no small dose of joy, to find Mitch all gorgeous and frowning in the doorway. “W-what are you doing here?”

“I wanted to talk.”

“But you just left.”

Mitch’s brows quirk ever so slightly. “You knew I was leaving…”

Stall Tara, stall. “Well everyone was leaving, so I assumed.” Hope has me stepping toward the door. “Maybe another night, I’m tired and your parents probably want to get going.”

“Noah and I brought our truck.”

Oh.

“He went home with Mum and Dad.”

Uh oh.

Mitch leans against the door jamb, arms crossing like he’s making himself at home. “Why are you avoiding me?”

“I’m not.”

The lie sounds lame even to my own wishful ears. Dodge ram it, why did I have to fall for someone who knows me?

“It started after last time we were here.” He looks around the room, taking in the paintings, slowing on the one of the Glade, before blue eyes come back to me. “When we almost kissed.”

Mitch’s honesty, the tendency to bluntness, I’ve always respected. Right now, it makes me wince.

“That was a mistake.”

“That’s what I thought you might say. I disagree.”

“Mitch, we’ve got a friendship most never get to experience.”

He steps forward. “Imagine what that would mean if we took it to the next level.”

“Noah would become a third wheel.” Tension pulls my whole body tight as my brain scrambles for some way to make this conversation stop.

Another step. Cinnamon and citrus fill my starving lungs. “We spoke. He couldn’t figure out why we didn’t see it earlier.”

“Our packs.”

I falter, the biggest reason is the one I can’t explain.

“Are you telling me I read the other night wrong?”

Mitch’s tone says it all. We grew up together. I know you.

My heart batters against my chest, bruising everything including itself. He’s right, and that’s what makes this a gazillion times worse.

“What’s holding you back Tara?”

“You’re right, I have been avoiding you.”

Victory flashes in the eyes I never wanted to hurt. I shake my head. “But it’s not what you think.”

Something shifts in Mitch as he sees how hard this is for me. He stills and waits.

“Mitch.” I swallow and swallow hard. “I value our friendship.”

Mitch straightens as he hears the truth in my words.

“But I don’t want to hurt you.”

I look away, but I hear the intake of breath as the next words hits home.

“And I don’t want any more than that.”

I don’t move, I don’t look up. Not even when I hear the door open, when angry hard footsteps take him away. I didn’t need to see the pain sweep through his deepwater eyes. I know I’ve hurt him. Hard and deep. I know because Mitch didn’t see my words for what they were.

A lie.

Chapter Six

When the Impossible Becomes Possible

The full moon, Mitch and Noah’s birthday, comes and goes. I stay up that night, looking up at the pale steady orb as it watches over the trees, wishing I could see what it’s seeing. I wish I could have been there when they got home. Seeing my two besties after their first change, celebrating with the two boys I’ve shared my childhood with.

Instead I paint.

Constantly.

I paint at school in the art room, relieved that Mitch doesn’t come looking for me. Knowing that his choice is a statement. No, more of a question. Is it possible for us to have a friendship after this?

I paint at home. And when I run out of canvases I use whatever paper I can find. And on days like today, where I’ve run out of indigo blue, I paint in my mind, trying to create some beauty in a world that is steadily fading, losing its color.

I’m heading back in when I find Dad at the dining room table. He’s spread out a sheet and has his favorite shotgun, the one that used to be Grandfather Garrett’s, spread out in parts.

He picks up the barrel, rubbing it with a white cloth. “How are those placards going?”

I stop, keeping my gaze focused on what he’s doing. The placards were finished days ago thanks to my current output. “Yep, all done.”

“You all set for tomorrow?”

Tomorrow is the protest. I reach out and grasp the back of a chair. “It’s just the Channons?”

Dad grunts, one of those deep heaves that lifts his entire torso. “They’ve got enough on their plate at the moment.”

I’m not sure if my breath out is relief that I won’t have to see them…or disappointment. “With the mayor and the legal loopholes?”

Dad looks up, big bushy brows heading up to his hairline. “You don’t know?”

Fiddling is gone, fidgeting is forgotten. Dad’s tone has me freezing. “Don’t know what?”

Dad goes back to pick up the stock, grunting again. “Noah didn’t change.”

“What?”

He looks up, eyes serious. “Noah didn’t shift. Mitch did, but Noah, well…nothing happened.”

I sit with a thud. “How is that possible?”

“It’s not.” Dad looks back to his gun. “He’s always had that weird mark.”

Our wolf tattoo is stamped on our chest, and for every other Were on the planet it sits beside a pack symbol, except for Noah’s. No one’s been able to figure out why his is different. I never really cared. In my mind Noah is a special guy, and that tattoo just proved it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Dad sucks his chin in, his beard pushing into his chest. “Figured that’s why you weren’t spending time with them, that you realized there’s something not right with those twins.”

I stand up, my chair scraping across the floor. “I’ve gotta go.”

Dad finally stops and looks up. “Tara, that family needs space.”

But I’m out the door before Dad gets a chance to tell me to stay, which would mean discovering whether I have the courage to defy him.

The drive to the Phelans involves acting like speed limits don’t apply to Weres but it still takes too long. Because of my selfishness I wasn’t there when two of the most important people in my world needed me.

The Phelan house is quiet when I arrive. One of the trucks is missing, telling me Adam and Beth are out, probably on some errand to do with the threat to the Glade. My own dramas pale when I think of what the family inside is going through.

I don’t bother knocking, I haven’t since I was a kid. I head straight upstairs, knowing Mitch will be in his room. I stop when I get there, his door is open and it frames the still person sitting on the bed.

He’s grown, filled out since the change, but the shoulders that have broadened are stooped and rounded. When Mitch looks up his eyes swim with pain and grief. I go to him, the past on pause because right now there’s something far more important I need to do. Be there for the one who’s always been there for me.

I shut the door and move forward. His hand comes up and I grasp it, eyes stinging at the warmth that caresses something deep in my chest. Things have changed, he’s bigger now, and we’ve barely spoken for weeks. But our connection, lifelong and friendship born, entwines like it was never severed. He tugs, needing closeness. I don’t think. I sit beside him, practically on top of him, my small frame tucking into his seamlessly.

“Noah’s not here.”

I’m not surprised. Out of the three of us Noah has always been the one who shouldered pain like a rock. Solid and alone. “He’s walking?”

Mitch blinks, a long slow shuttering of relief that he doesn’t have to explain.

I squeeze his hand and look at him. Waiting for him to tell me.

Mitch’s words stutter and halt, knowing I can piece together the fragments. They went to the Glade, brimming with so much excitement and anticipation that nervousness never stood a chance. As twilight descended Mitch changed. And Noah didn’t. They waited — the Phelans have patience patented.

And nothing happened.

“Dad and Noah went back every night for a week. Nothing.”

“That would have been awful.” Waiting, hoping.

“I wanted to be there, Tara. He’s my brother, my twin for Pete’s sake.”

“But it would have hurt him more.” Because Mitch has changed, he’s a Were now.

Mitch sighs, having run out of words.

I don’t slacken my grip on his hand. “What’s next?”

“Now we wait for the next full moon.”

His tone is colored with hope, tinged with anguish. If Noah didn’t change when we are meant to, why would he change any other time?

I shake my head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s like you’ve built something, something big, only to find out it has the mother of all faults running right through the foundation.”

“Noah’s stronger than this, we both know it.”

But Mitch doesn’t respond, like there’s no room for optimism anymore. “It really messes with your head.”

I just watch him, his face slack and sad, and no words come. I squeeze his hand and Mitch looks down at our entwined fingers. “It’s like there’s nothing left to trust.”

“Mitch, no.”

“Noah’s world has been turned inside out because he assumed he knew where it was going. So did I when it came to you…us.”

My heart splinters as the boy I love discovers his foundations weren’t what he thought they were. Undermined by something that we never thought possible…but also undermined by my lies. He looks down, dragging away the deepwater gaze I was drowning in.

One question rises up through my heartache. How can the truth be wrong?

I reach up, my fingers brushing his jaw, bringing those blue eyes back to me. “You weren’t wrong, Mitch.”

His brows tug down, confusion pulling them tight. Rather than tell him I follow my heart, and show him.

I push up and press my lips to his own startled ones. The moment they brush, touch and connect I discover that passion in its purest form is a kaleidoscope of colors. There’s the purity of truth, the swirling haze of desire. I gasp and it deepens, and I discover the bold strokes of ‘oh sweet gods of yes’ and ‘don’t ever stop’.

My hands come up to cup his face, trace his shoulders, tremble over his rapidly moving chest. His arms band around me like clamps and the passion bursts even brighter. This is why I didn’t want to touch Mitch once my feelings tipped over the edge. I wouldn’t want to stop.

The final word registers. I need to stop.

I pull back, already resenting the cool air that starts to slip between us. But Mitch doesn’t let me get far. His palms clasp my head and he leans back in. The prismatic play of feelings, hunger and gasps, starts all over again. How am I supposed to ever move from the one place I don’t ever want to leave?

Minutes and lifetimes pass before we pull apart. We sit there, foreheads touching, gazing in wonder. Our first kiss. Where do we go from here?

Mitch’s breath, all cinnamon and citrus, puffs out. “I don’t want us to end at this.”

The truth escapes me before I can reign it in. “Me neither.”

Mitch’s eyes blaze, the first flash of light I’ve seen since I arrived. I can’t bring myself to pull back, loving his lips so close to mine. “Maybe we keep this quiet for a little while.”

I need time.

Mitch blinks. “Keep it quiet?”

“Yeah. You know, with all this stuff going on with Noah, and the Glade. I think our packs have enough on their plates.”

Mitch frowns but I press my lips to his, knowing I’ve just established an addiction, wanting him to agree.

He pulls back, the frown replaced by soft passion. “Just me and you, huh?”

“For now. Just you,” I clasp him tighter, “and me.”

As his lips descend again I know I need to convince my dad this is a good thing. When it feels like colors have just been born, how could he not agree?

Chapter Seven

Didn’t See That Coming

The following day is painted by normal. Classes, joking through recess, classes, laughing through lunch. At the end of the day we take our usual scenic route home from school — Noah and Mitch heading home via Wilmot. It’s funny how we’ve never thought of it as them dropping me off. Maybe because if the roles were reversed, I never would have blinked at doing it for them.

There’s the usual talk in the car. I turn to Mitch, who’s driving. “I considered oiling Mr. Dougherty’s joints today.”

Mitch grins. “Do you think his social security number is in the single digits?”

“He could probably tell us what Gandalf looks like without a beard.”

Mitch chuckles, the rich sound a feather stroke down my spine.

But the moment you look beneath our routine, standard banter you see that nothing’s normal. Not for the first time today I ‘accidentally’ brush Mitch’s arm. There’s an intake of breath, I’m not really sure if it’s mine or his, but it doesn’t really matter. For the millionth time today my eyes find his and I drown in deepwater blue in the space of a heartbeat. So much emotion is swirling in there, layers of meaning. Mitch drags his eyes away and focuses on the road, thankfully one of us is concentrating on not killing us.

But it still takes me another five heartbeats to look away. Since THE kiss his lips are a magnet for my focus. His hair one of the many sensations I want to feel again.

I turn to look back at Noah — whose voice has been missing in the to-ing and fro-ing — to find he’s looking out the window, our standard banter has pretty much hit the shield that now surrounds him and slid to the ground. The fact that Mr. I-Never-Miss-A-Thing hasn’t commented on the chemistry that practically arcs every time Mitch and I blink says everything that’s not being said.

Because Noah isn’t just lost out the car window, Noah is wandering, floundering.

I glance back at Mitch to find his lips are tight, his hands gripping the steering wheel. This time when my hand touches his arm it’s deliberate. He glances at me as he clasps my hand for the briefest second. An image of him lifting my hand, his lips brushing my knuckles, flashes through my mind and I wonder if it’s my wish or his.

When we see the sign — the foreboding words FOR SALE sliced over by even more frightening words UNDER OFFER — the three of us move in unison. Noah straightens, the car slows as Mitch’s foot lifts off the gas, and I frown. It’s an unspoken agreement that we’ll pull in even though there’s so little we can do.

Rather than pulling over just off the highway Mitch takes the track into the forest, following it until it ends at a wall of trees. We climb out, and Noah stretches. “I’ll look around to see if I can find any tracks that might give us some info.”

I smile. “Cool, we’ll case the joint for the protest tomorrow.”

Noah nods, eyes already focused on the ground as he follows some trail neither of us can see. For some reason it takes him into the trees and within seconds he’s swallowed by their branches. I look at Mitch. We both know Noah is using his Alpha-taught skills without realizing it.

Mitch sags against the truck. “He was meant to be a Were, Tara. Darn it, he was born to be Alpha.”

It’s only a few short steps and I’m in his arms, sinking into the heat that’s been calling me all day. “I think we just have to believe it’ll all make sense in its own time.”

“I love your faith.” He brushes a lock of my hair back from my face. “I think I’m going to need it.”

I look up, loving those deep blue eyes. “I love that you’ll stand by him — Noah knows he won’t be doing this alone.” My hand comes up to rest on his cheek, my fingertips brushing his dark chocolate hair. “I love that you build support for everyone around you.” Although his eyes simultaneously darken and heat, it’s the sharp intake of breath that snags my attention. My gaze is drawn to his parted lips. “And I love that I’ve found a whole other level of you that I love.”

His palms come up to cup my face, those lips that I’m now hungering to taste moving down. He stops a butterfly breath away. “Only with you Tara, only with you.”

And with those heart-soaring words our lips connect. It’s a slow burn this time, stronger, possibly deeper. Definitely deeper. I push in, seeking more of that profound connection, the skin-tingling passion. Mitch obliges, arms wrapping around me to press all of him against all of me. I let out some sort of sigh-groan-demand for more, my fingers finding that delicious chocolate hair. There’s an answering rumble from Mitch and I glory in kissing him — the one thing that is new with Mitch, that feels like it will never get old.

We pull back, panting, smiling. Mitch rests his forehead on mine. “Tell me again why this is a secret?”

I close my eyes, not wanting reality to color this glorious feeling. “There’s just too much going on, we need to be there for our packs.”

When Mitch moves back I open them to find him watching me, brows quirked quizzically. I smile, reaching up on tip toes to grab another taste of deliciousness. “What’s the rush?”

With that I grab his hand and start heading down the track, hoping for a distraction seeing I’m not making a whole lot of sense. But I can’t tell him that there’s only one person that needs convincing, and my plan works under the assumption that for that Alpha to come to the party, I need time.

The sound of a car pulling off the highway, wheels crushing dry pine needles and engines stopping, is a gift from the gods of she-who-is-stalling. I glance back at Mitch, and he looks just as curious as me. In silence we head into the trees, knowing they’re probably just around the bend.

My eyes adjust to the shadowy coolness and I discover that Noah didn’t get far. He’s squatting, fingers brushing a boot print in the soil. He straightens as we approach, mouth opening to talk.

I shake my head, eyes widening. Noah looks at me like I’ve grown a second nose then turns to Mitch. When he looks like he’s still going to talk, Mitch’s arm shoots out to grasp his arm. Noah glances at him, the eyebrows that were hiked in question shooting down into a frown when Mitch indicates with his chin there’s someone ahead. Noah knows we heard whoever has arrived and he didn’t.

“We’ll have to clear all of this.”

We glance at each other, even Noah can hear that rough male voice. I mouth two words — the loggers.

Cultured, English tones respond. “Yes, it’s unfortunate, but necessary.”

An English logger? This guy’s voice says scones and tea, not forearms wider than your thighs.

“You’re a genius Charles. This is just the place for it.”

“Yes, I can’t believe our luck that the mayor has been so obliging.”

Yeah, thanks to your under-the-table dealings. My hands tighten into fists and the impulse to storm into their little planning session flashes from my brain to my feet. Until warm, calloused fingers slide over my wrist and wrap around my iron grasp. My anger loses its edge, knowing what Mitch is trying to communicate. We need to hear what they have to say.

“You were right. Jacksonville has hotels, it doesn’t need anymore.”

We glance at each other, various levels of frown bouncing around. Hotels?

“But not eco-cabins, now there’s an untapped goldmine. Right beside this majestic national park, we’ll have the naturalists, the middle classers looking for something different, and the rich looking to reconnect with nature.”

My eyes widen. Eco tourism?

“This place is magnificent, and we’ll keep most of it just the way it is. Cabins amongst massive pines. Walks deep into the forest.” Alarm bells start to drown out the heartbeat that had been thumping on my eardrums. This is bad, real bad.

“Once the investors see it they’ll be throwing their check books at us.”

Fingers snap in the silence. “Genius Jimmy.”

There’s a pause and you just know Jimmy has no idea what he just suggested.

“We’ll bring them here, much better than showing the concept plans. They’ll get a feel for this place.” There’s the rustle of steps. “I say we do it on twilight, more ambiance…less traffic.”

Mitch’s hand tightens around mine. They’re still doing the dirty.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Friday night I say, some could end up spending the weekend and seeing the sights…”

The voices fade as we stay deep in the shadows. Minutes pass in silence as we wait to make sure we’re really alone.

Mitch releases my hand, quickly glancing at his brother. But Noah is staring down the path, at the guys we heard but never saw, his whole body taut. He seems to consciously unwind himself as he turns to us. “We need to go tell our parents.”

Our Alphas.

He turns, takes a step forward and pauses, his back ramrod straight. “Is it clear?”

My chest crumbles for the proud shoulders that are trying to hold it together. Mitch is silent, and I can feel the tension radiating from him like a taut rubber band.

I walk forward, elbowing my bestie on the way through. “If they’re still there, I’ve got the Englishman, that leaves you to take Jimmy down.”

There’s a harrumph, probably because I really dig the pointy end in. “I think a dodo could outsmart that guy.”

I wrap my arm through his, blinking up at Noah, relieved to see that pensive look is washed away by a grin. “Feeling intimidated?”

Mitch joins us on my other side. “You probably should be, remember the time you let Tara cut your hair?”

Noah throws him an unimpressed glance. “She said she’d only trim it.”

With one arm looped through my bestie’s, the other looped through the one that is so much more, we head back to the car.

How could Dad not see how much stronger we are together?

Chapter Eight

A Plan is Born

Uber bad is an understatement. The moment we heard who was set to buy that land and what they planned to do with it, stuff went to DEFCON—is that a mushroom cloud?—women and children first—bad.

The community would be against loggers. You only need to live around these pine covered hills for a nanosecond before you fall in love with it almost as hard as I have. No one in our towns would be okay with cutting down the foundations of this forest.

But money-making, economy-boosting tourism? And tourism that seeks to preserve what they love? There are going to be a lot of people keen to see that happen.

And if they’re successful there will be people staying by the Glade, all year round. People wanting to walk and hike and explore through the forest. Hot peppers, they’ll probably have guides. It’s only a matter of time before the one place that is sacred to Weres is found.

Which is why the Phelans and the Channons are all at the Glade the next day. We need to know what to do next.

I shift my weight from foot to foot as I wait. Dad felt it was important that we arrive early, which really meant he wanted to arrive first. I’d tried to suggest there was no rush, but when he’d frowned I hadn’t pushed it. I’d climbed in the car, not looking too closely at why I didn’t want to find out if I can move that mountain even an inch. There’s no point fussing over the little stuff, right?

My world lights up when Mitch arrives with his parents, then dims a fraction when I see Noah isn’t with them. As Adam and Beth greet my father, Mitch and I step to the side.

“Why wouldn’t he come?”

Mitch’s lips flat line. “Said it wasn’t his place.”

I feel an ache deep in my chest. Which would have been better? Coming here where you know you’re the anomaly that no one knew could exist, as does everyone else. Or stay home. Alone. As your packs face one of their greatest threats.

“Mum tried, she really did, but short of Dad ordering him to, he’s the poster boy for stubborn.”

Which Adam would never do.

We look at each other, knowing we’re both thinking the same thing — this sucks. But as has been the trend lately, once Mitch’s eyes are on me for more than about two seconds the world begins to blur and wash away. It becomes just the two of us and the magical feeling that’s starting to feel too big to contain. The one that is carrying us both through the hardest time in our lives.

Mitch leans in almost imperceptibly, enough for every cell in my body to wish he was on a line and I could reel him in. “I wish I could…”

“Tara.”

Dad calling my name, the one word said with military authority, has me moving automatically. He’s watching me and Mitch but I can’t decipher the frown deep in his grizzled face. I smile a big smile and greet Adam and Beth. They both hug me, Beth feeling almost fragile despite her height, whilst Adam’s powerful arms feel like an anchor in a thunderstorm.

Mitch shakes Dad’s hand and I find myself watching him closely, looking for some sort of reaction. I want to shout ‘this is the one I want, this is the one that will make my heart sing, shine, dance, in every beat it will ever have’. But Dad acknowledges him with the politeness he’s always shown and turns away.

Dad and Adam stand at the head and the low murmurs subside. It’s Dad who speaks first, although to be honest, Adam never gets a chance.

“We know why we’re here. We know what we need to stop, so today we come up with a plan.”

The Channons grumble and shift, the Phelans frown and still.

Adam steps forward, toward the center of the grassy area. “The tourism place believes the land is as good as sold.”

This time it doesn’t matter what pack you belong to, grumbles roll through the Glade.

“But we have a solution — we get the money together, outbid them.” He looks around at every Were there. “And then we own the land ourselves.”

Seth crosses his arms. “That’s a lot of money.”

“We’d all have to put in what we can.”

Keith, our grizzled but shrewd Channon, narrows his eyes. “And if the Phelans add more then you get the greater share?”

Adam is already shaking his head. “No. This would be an equal venture by both packs, it doesn’t matter how much we put it. Equal ownership.”

Beth steps forward. “What better way to bring us together?”

“We don’t have much time.” This is from Dad, and with his face schooled to neutral, I can’t tell what he thinks of this suggestion.

Adam’s hands go out wide, an open invitation. “All we need is people to commit what they can afford.”

Muted talk shifts through the two crowds, everyone knowing that every Were can hear each other. Discussions detailing how much money is needed and how much time we have transcends the Channon-Phelan boundary. No one asks the questions that have no answers — do we have any other choice? What will this mean for the packs?

What if it doesn’t work?

It doesn’t take long for everyone to realize this is our best shot. The details — the creation of an account, the hiring of a lawyer — are decided quickly. I look at Mitch, one arm crossed, that index finger rubbing his bottom lip as he talks to Adam and Dad. In the absence of Noah, his ability to lead has risen to the surface like a dormant being. It doesn’t surprise me in the least. I watch a little more closely, seeing if Dad is noticing this too. But they’re finished, stepping back. Dad shakes hands with Adam and walks away. I look away before I have to see that he never bothered saying goodbye to Mitch.

Time, this will take time Tara.

People are trickling back to their cars, the Glade slowly emptying. Dad and I stand and say goodbye to each member of our pack as Adam and Mitch do the same. Adelle and Seth are one of the last to walk past, almost like they were holding back.

She wraps me in her usual incense-laden hug before turning to Dad. “So the protest is off?”

Dad scratches his beard. “I suppose it probably isn’t very relevant anymore.”

Seth’s hands clench. “Those bastards shouldn’t be able to just get away with this.”

Adelle places a hand on Seth’s forearm. “What they did isn’t right Seth, but we’ve got a way to move forward now.”

Dad’s fingers haven’t untangled from his bristly beard, which means he’s thinking hard. “Although this threat isn’t gone yet.”

I don’t know why, but I feel my chest tighten. What is Dad alluding to?

Seth leans forward, his eyes zeroed on Dad. “What are you thinking, Alpha?”

Dad turns to me. “You said they’re going there Friday, didn’t you?”

I swallow, not sure why I’m uncomfortable with this. Is it because the Phelans are on the other side of the Glade, unaware this talk is happening? Or is it the flash of fire I see burning in Dad’s hazel eyes? “Yeah, Friday.”

Dad’s hand comes out to grasp Seth’s shoulder, like some coach in a boxing ring. “I’m going to need you Friday night.”

Seth’s smile is slow but sure. “Looking forward to it, Alpha.”

“I’d like to be there.”

We all turn to Adelle, in her flowing blue dress cinched with a crochet belt. Dad crosses his arms. “Adelle —”

But her hand comes up, her head already shaking. “Kurt, you know I love a good cause.”

Dad’s lips tighten deep in his beard. I wait, breath held. Adelle just bucked the system, and we all know how our Alpha takes to that.

She drops her hand. “And this is the most important one I’ve ever fought for.”

Dad’s head comes up and he nods once. Adelle crosses her arms, and it looks far more like a defensive gesture than a triumphant one. For someone who just insisted on coming, to the point where she risked getting on the wrong side of her Alpha, she doesn’t look as happy as I’d expect.

Dad’s arms unfold, the motion expanding his chest. “Very well. Humans need to know they can’t take what isn’t theirs.”

I have to work hard not to frown as the tight feeling in my chest climbs up my throat, tightening my jaw, pulling at my brow. Does anyone else notice Dad drawing the ‘us’ and ‘them’ line? The subtle dominance, the hint at how far he’s willing to go? Is it just me or do I see Adelle’s lips tighten just a fraction?

Seth glances as the last of the Phelans disappear down the track that leads to the small parking lot that holds our cars. Mitch’s back, broad and strong, disappears into the green tunnel. If Dad knew that the whole time we’ve been here I’ve been tracking the movements of that strong, hot bod, what would he say? If I told him that just one glance from those blue eyes and my heart hums like it’s found the energy that powers it, would he nod just like he did with Adelle?

Dad turns and strides towards the track. “Let’s get going, I’ve got some planning to do.”

I loiter as we all head through the green tunnel, pine trees and thick undergrowth framing the path back out. Dad doesn’t notice that I make like a turtle, he walks with his head tilted down, deep in thought. Seth strides alongside his Alpha whilst Adelle watches.

One bend and I’m on my own, wishing I had some sort of telepathic link to the one I want here.

There’s a rustle, and I’m encased in cinnamon and citrus and powerful arms. I spin, throwing my arms around his shoulders, feeling like the fourth of July is being celebrated in my chest.

Mitch’s blue eyes are twinkling. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you walk that slow.”

“I forgot something.”

He quirks a brow. “What?”

You know what they say — actions speak louder than words. So I push up, hold it for a moment, drawing out the anticipation…and then glory in the sensation of my lips on his. I press my body to his, loving the feeling of hard muscles pressed against me.

Since when did being apart feel so wrong?

I pull back, not sure if I want to smile or go back for more. Mitch makes the decision for the both of us, his mouth touching mine again tenderly. I decide to opt for dissolving into a puddle of pleasure.

It’s the sounds of our packs down the path that have us reluctantly pulling apart, knowing we need to get back. I glance nervously over my shoulder, realizing the significance of what I’m doing and how close they are. When I turn back Mitch is watching me with narrowed eyes.

I grasp his hand, not quite ready to let go yet, and start walking. “Your dad’s plan sounds like a good one.”

Mitch looks ahead as we start walking. His voice is hushed when he says, “Dad’s already spoken to the bank. He’s putting our house on the market as collateral for a loan.”

I suck in my breath. “That house, your land, has been in your family for generations.”

Mitch shrugs, but his shoulders end up lower once he’s finished. “The Glade is more important.”

The conversation that just happened amongst my Channon pack flashes through my mind. I know it would be considered a betrayal to tell him, but jeepers bleepers it feels like a betrayal not telling him.

Mitch stops, our held hands pulling me to stop alongside him. “I want to tell my mom and dad.”

I swallow. “We’re waiting for everything to settle down, remember? With your dad’s plan, we shouldn’t have to wait long.”

Mitch shakes his head, my hand releasing from his grip. “It seems to make less and less sense. I feel like I’m missing something here, Tara.”

Something tightens in my chest. How do I answer that?

Mitch takes a step forward, those eyes watching me, knowing me. “I don’t want to treat us like some dirty secret.”

That feeling twists, becoming almost painful. Mitch deserves so much better than this. He deserves the truth. I just need a little more time and then the emotion that sparks between us can be on beautiful display. I look at him, not knowing how to explain this without betraying my father.

One word whispers past my lips. “Soon?”

Mitch studies me for long seconds. I know he can read that this is more complicated than I’m telling him, that this is hard for me too.

He looks up at the arch of greens above us, holds it there and then his gaze settles back on me. “Fine.”

Relief has me smiling, love has my heart swelling. Defs going to have to try and bottle this guy. “Thank you.”

Mitch turns and starts to walk down the path. Over his shoulder he says one last thing. “Just remember, patience is Noah’s thing, not so much mine.”

I let my gaze travel down his back, pause, then come back up to catch his eye. “Luckily you have other strengths.”

Mitch shakes his head, but he’s grinning as he disappears around the bend. The instant he’s gone I feel the tension unravel, maybe splinter would be a better word. Despite what Mitch just said, he’s patient. But he’s telling me that this limbo I’ve put us in won’t last.

I hurry back to the car, where Dad is waiting — the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. In the car I tuck my hands into my lap, gripping them tightly. I’m going to take a leaf out of Adelle’s book — How to Get What You Want from Your Alpha.

“It’s sad that Noah wasn’t there.”

Dad grunts, and I wait but he doesn’t contribute.

Trying to keep it casual I suck in a shallow breath, deciding that meagre shot of courage will have to do. “Mitch is doing a good job of stepping up in the meantime.”

Dad grunts again and I wait…again. Nothing. It’s silence that accompanies us the rest of the way home. I spend the whole evening, every moment between then and when I go to bed, analyzing that one gruff sound. Yeah, I see what you mean? Oh, I hadn’t realized you had feelings for him, but now that you mention it, you two would make a fine bonded couple? I’m not really paying attention to you because I have bigger things on my plate than a girl’s, first born or not, impossible crush?

But as I close my eyes I finally admit to myself…I have no idea what it meant…and I was too scared to ask.

Chapter Nine

The Sacrifice

The walk through the trees to the clearing, coming from the direction of the Glade, is slow, hampered by the warm weight Dad carries.

I’ve been hunting with Dad countless times. It was my indoctrination into understanding where we stand on the food chain — way above the deer that dropped when a bullet ripped through its heart…far stronger than the humans due to arrive here in less than half an hour.

We come to the clearing to find the place is already set up. A table stands to the side and lights are strung up in the arms of the pines. I can already see the gingham table-cloth, champagne flutes and hors d’oeuvres that will arrive with the guests.

Heading to the far side of the table Dad drops the deer with a grunt, its body landing on the ground with a heavy thwump. He glances at it, and I know it’s not with pity. For him it’s simply the natural order of things. “We do this and then we head to the trees.”

I only have a general idea what Dad’s plan is — my role is to follow and obey. No questions asked. My eyes widen when he shifts and a massive russet wolf stands over the dead body of the deer. They stretch even further when he bares his teeth, canines bright in the twilight, and his open jaws arc toward its throat. The millisecond I realize what he’s about to do I look away, but I can’t escape the squelching sound of bloody muscles being macerated by massive jaws.

It doesn’t take long before Dad steps back. Like a car wreck I can’t help but look. The deer looks like it’s been ravaged by a violent predator…because it just was. Dad starts circling the bloodied carcass, glancing at me and inclining his broad, bloody head.

I know what I’m supposed to do, tracking skills go hand in hand with hunting. I pad around, slowly and purposefully, ignoring the gaping, bleeding flesh, the blank wide-eyed stare that never knew it was giving itself up for a cause. Our paw prints press over the other, making it look like there were far more than two wolves here, their size intimidating even without the sheer number of prints.

Dad wipes the majority of the blood from his face in the grass before heading for the pines and the safety of their shadows. I’m relieved I don’t have to look at the warning we’ve left behind, not sure why it’s bothered me so much. We lope further into the forest, but even this far away the coppery smell of blood still dominates my wolf senses.

Dad stops and shifts so I follow, for once grateful for duller human senses which can’t smell the blood pooling so many yards away. We turn and face the clearing, side by side. Obscured by layers of trees, it’s nothing more than a fragmented picture of open grass, the tree trunks like bars of a prison cell window.

Dad crosses his arms, one hand coming up to rustle in his beard. “Now, we wait.”

“Did you tell the Phelans we were doing this?” I ask, already guessing the answer.

Dad’s arm comes down to cross over his chest. “No.”

I suck in a breath, “It’s just that —”

“It is the Channons that will make this right.”

I turn my face away so Dad can’t see the frown threatening to bloom. Why does it have to be us and them? Surely the path to strength and greatness doesn’t have to be so competitive. So lonely. As smiling deepwater eyes promising a future founded on connection and equality flash before my eyes I pull in another breath of pine.

“Maybe we’re better off…”

My embryonic courage evaporates as Dad turns his gaze to me. His breathing is slow and controlled. There’s no sharp movements or angry scowls. But his hazel eyes say it all. Consider your words, Tara. Think of what I’ve spent your life teaching you.

You, and only you, know why this is so important.

Flashes of the wolf statue Dad has been carving for years rise in my mind. The sculpture of the Channons. Strong. Enduring.

He waits for me to finish my sentence.

I wonder whether I can begin to imagine the consequences of what I’m considering right now.

Twigs crack and boughs rustle, subtly but undeniably breaching the tension. Effectively halting the trajectory of where that was going.

“Well hello you two.”

Adelle and Seth materialize through the trees, Adelle smiling, her son mirroring the seriousness of what we plan on doing tonight.

Dad shifts gears like the leader he is. “Good to see you, I’ll show you what we’ve done.”

He takes them a few trees deeper toward the clearing, hushed words like ‘circling’ and ‘intimidate’ and ‘heard but not seen’ shifting amongst the pines. I stay where I am, surrounded by a deepening sense of hopelessness. Wondering if I’m going to be forced to make a choice I don’t know I can make.

When Dad starts walking left, probably marking out the semi-circle we’ll be framing the clearing in, Adelle steps back. Dad glances at her, but doesn’t seem worried when she heads back to me. Seth seems to be hanging on Dad’s every word.

Adelle comes to stand beside me, the subtle, smoky scent of incense merging with the earthy smells of the forest. I smile a greeting, emotions still boiling and roiling.

She hugs herself. “I do love the forest at twilight, it’s my favorite time.”

“Me too.” Colors cloaked in mystery, shadows creeping forward, reaching out toward the promise of night.

“I can see why they want to build here.”

My eyes widen and I glance at Dad, but his figure is broken by the rows of trees counting the distance between us.

Adelle straightens. “Of course, they need to be stopped.”

“Of course.” I sigh, hoping I’m keeping the sadness out of my voice.

Dad is pointing while Seth is nodding, enthusiasm driving the motion. That’s probably what I should be doing, listening and loving it. It’s probably what Kurt Junior will do in a few short years.

Adelle doesn’t seem to notice, because she smiles a little. “Passion burns bright in Seth.”

Kind of like my Dad. “He would make a good Alpha.”

“Maybe.”

That one word has me looking back at Adelle. It’s not what I was expecting to hear.

She looks at me, eyes candid and honest. “Passion can be misdirected…” She glances back, and for some reason, even though we’re talking about Seth, her eyes track Dad. “It can be mistaken for truth.”

I frown, not sure what she’s telling me. Dad and Seth turn, purposeful strides and serious frowns bringing them back towards us. But I need to know. “What do you mean?”

Adelle’s hand comes up to grip my arm. She smiles then looks back at Seth. “I love a good cause Tara, because it gives my life purpose, but also because it brings people together.” Which isn’t what we’re doing here. “That’s why I came, because I worry about him sometimes.” Her eyes come back to me. “I’m just not sure that he’s figured out there’s more than one way to make a pack strong.”

What the fudgesticks does that mean?

But there’s no time for answers. Dad and Seth are beside us just as the green flag drops. The investors have arrived. Cars crunch over the pine needles, doors open then shut.

Dad instantly shifts and we follow suit. In a split second four humans transform into four wolves – Dad a massive russet red, me a slighter, lighter squirrel-red, Seth an earthy brown, and Adelle all shifting colors of greys and browns. Although our line of sight is obstructed by pines, their scents and sounds are unmistakable – a mix of female laughter and too much male cologne. Charles is there, instructing crisply dressed helpers carrying cliché cane picnic baskets. It doesn’t look like Jimmy was invited.

Gold jewelry flashes on a reed thin brunette, wearing the most impractical heels I’ve ever seen. She teeters over to Charles. “Oh Charles, it’s gorgeous.”

Charles gestures with the two champagne flutes he’s holding. “Can’t you just picture it, Sylvia?” The champagne bottle in his other hand sweeps the clearing. “Boutique eco-cabins in this glorious setting, it’s a niche market waiting to be mined.”

Sylvia flicks her groomed hair. I can almost hear the cash register ringing in her head. “I see what you’re talking about.”

“And you’re preserving this amazing place – the plants, the animals.”

She turns to the suited man who has come up beside her. “I love animals, don’t I Victor?”

Dad rustles beside me, a growl rumbling deep in his chest. Sylvia glances up, and I wonder how much she heard and how much she felt the ripples of his hatred.

She slips a little closer to Victor. “There’s no bears here, are there?”

Charles laughs, passing the glasses to the two future income streams. “Bears haven’t been sighted around here Sylvia, but you don’t need to worry. We have precautions in place.”

Precautions?

But that seems to be our cue. Dad throws his head back and howls, and we follow. I feel the sound climbing up my throat and rising to the blue-black sky. I don’t have to fake the anguish that is clawing its way out. We spread out, each of us finding an out-post, the eerie sound weaving and winding through the trees.

We stay far enough away so the humans can’t see that we’re no normal wolf, but close enough for the wild sound of our howls, each from a slightly different direction, to sound threateningly close. Throughout, nature’s warning siren never completely stops, as one primal voice dies another picks up the symphony, but you can tell the humans have gone silent.

Dad stops and one by one our voices fade away. Silently we pad back to Dad and hunch down, watching. A breeze ruffles the silence.

“What a wonderful demonstration of what our guests would hear.” Charles’ voice is full of false enthusiasm.

“They sounded very close.” This voice is a male, maybe Victor, and he’s looking around like something is going to jump him any second.

Charles laughs. “Sound does that in the forest. I think it just adds ambiance. Come, we have a wonderful selection from some of Jacksonville’s finest restaurants.”

Dad’s eyes are intense as he tracks their movements. He knows they’re about to find their next surprise.

We know the moment they do because Sylvia screams. It’s a high pitched mix of horror and fear. I can just imagine Charles cursing in that British head of his. This would not be how he saw this night going.

“I want to go Victor. Take me home.”

Charles is already escorting Sylvia away from the gruesome sight. “Sylvia, this is highly unusual. I say we move over here and allow the food to come to us. There’s some amazing —”

But Sylvia is already walking away.

“It’s perfectly safe, we have pre—”

“I want to go home.”

The finality in Sylvia’s tone says that no matter what Charles promises, she’s leaving. Charles must hear it too because he doesn’t try convincing anymore. Pine needles crack and rustle as they turn to leave.

The tension knotted between my shoulder blades loosens. Mission accomplished — it looks like Charles won’t be getting his investors after all. What’s more, that’s gotta be our cue to leave.

I straighten my legs, turning to look at Dad, waiting for the cue to retreat.

But Dad doesn’t move, his gaze is zeroed on the humans as they begin to head to the cars. I follow his line of sight, Sylvia is glancing over her shoulder, hand resting at her throat, like she can feel the gaze centered on her.

Dad’s eyes narrow, and I don’t know if they’re smiling or plotting.

He glances at Seth and Adelle, his broad russet head nodding once. The three wolves are gone in an instant. Confused, I straighten. Adelle looks back once, and I can’t tell what the intensity in her gaze is trying to convey.

I stand uncertainly — surely our job here is done. The investors are running, spooked. Then why is my pack spreading out is some sort of attack formation? A feeling, tight and hot, starts to clench around my chest.

A rustle, not far behind me, has me spinning, heart in my throat. My eyes widen when I see two more wolves have joined us. One, a proud grey figure, the other his midnight black son.

Adam and Mitch are here?

Adam’s broad head glances around, sharp blue eyes taking in that I’m alone. He nods at Mitch and is gone.

The relief that they’re here, inexplicable as it is, is quickly replaced by my first view of Mitch as a wolf. Big, black and bold, he’s breathtaking.

I pad over, like an invisible tether has attached to the blue eyes watching me from that midnight face. In that amazing way the world melts away and it’s just Mitch and me and our love. When I’m close, so close our noses are almost touching, our eyes locked, I stop. With the self-control of Christa in a candy shop I can’t help but touch. I tuck my head and curl into him, my head beneath his chin. The sensation of his soft fur, his stable warmth, his amazing wild scent, floods my senses. I feel his head bow, maximizing the contact, making me feel cherished.

I can’t live in a world without this.

As much as I love the whole other level our animal senses bring to this, I wish I could talk. I’d tell him how breathtaking, heartshaking this feels. How mind blowing my love is for him. How much I want to fight for this.

Barks, growls and howls puncture our moment. I hear Charles calling out to Jimmy. Jimmy’s here? I spin around, things aren’t going like I thought they would. When I look up I see Dad coming towards me. I run ahead, shifting as I go because I need some answers.

It’s his human form that grabs both my arms. “Did you tell the Phelans?”

“Dad —”

“Tell me! Why are they here?” His voice is intense, hard.

“I don’t know. I never said a word. Maybe they wanted to see this for themselves.”

Dad pauses, seeing the logic in my words. I don’t know why I get the sense that Mitch’s Alpha father came here as a peacekeeper. I open my mouth, he doesn’t realize Mitch is close enough to hear this.

“I want you to stay away from them. That pack isn’t what I thought they were.”

“W-what?”

“A first born who didn’t change? From what I can see, they now have no Alpha heir and a Beta who’s never trained for it. The Channons will not align with that.”

His tone is heavy with ‘we’re better than that’.

I say nothing. The band of pain constricting my throat doesn’t let me. Mitch would have heard every single word that just doomed my future.

As my silence stretches out, Dad assumes agreement. “One last statement and we leave.”

With that he shifts again and is gone. I stay where I am, not wanting to be a part of whatever this ‘statement’ is, but hurting at the idea of what I might find behind me. I turn to find Mitch’s blue eyes on me, blazing from a human face, his silhouette lined with shock, grief…understanding. My hand comes up, palm open, not knowing what I’m pleading for.

He steps forward then stops. “That’s why.”

“I wanted to tell you.”

He shakes his head, I’m not sure if he’s denying my words or if he’s angry at his own stupidity. “It had nothing to do with Noah, or the Glade.”

“I thought that if I gave him time —”

His hand comes up, my words a feeble balm for what he’s just realized. “I was born seven minutes too late, wasn’t I?”

“Mitch.” My voice is pleading, hoping.

“Were we ever going to be possible?” He swallows. “Were you even going to try?”

I have nothing. Even if I could lie I wouldn’t.

Mitch steps back. “I didn’t think so.”

Mitch turns, shifts and runs, his body melding with the darkness that matches my mind.

I’m frozen with indecision. Was I kidding myself? I step forward, not knowing what I’m going to say, but not wanting this pain blossoming in my chest.

All of a sudden there are shouts, the sounds of movement.

A crack.

I spin, I know that sound. I grew up with that sound. I heard that sound just earlier today when the deer dropped to the ground.

I race forward then grasp a tree trunk to steady me.

Seth is kneeling on the pine-littered ground, Dad is standing over him, holding his shoulders. Seth’s whispered words are laced with agony. “No, no, no.”

Up ahead the humans are congregating, Jimmy’s shocked voice carries through the trees. “I saw a wolf. I swear that’s what I saw.”

My knees give out when I see what has the humans in a flurry.

Adelle’s still form lies crumpled on the ground.

Chapter Ten

The Farewell

The days and weeks that follow the death of Adelle become long and grey. No, not grey. Colorless. Leached of life. The Channons have lost a long standing pack member. A woman who was both a nurturer and a fighter. The brush of loss and grief paints everything.

Losing Adelle is hard. The investigation into her shooting was short. Few questions were asked, and we didn’t encourage more. Adelle was known for her love of nature, her kooky tendencies. Walking in the forest at twilight with wolves around was perfectly plausible. It went down in the law books as an accident.

Losing Adelle, just as I lost Mitch, is life-changing. It leaves behind a solitary and agonizing world. It’s a world that’s hard to breathe in, that’s impossible to smile. There’s no bestie to hold me, no passion to buoy me. There’s no Mitch to show me that this will get better someday, somehow.

Adelle’s funeral showed me what this new world would look like. Even Mother Nature was mourning the loss of her champion. She draped the skies with low clouds and painted the world with sadness. Everything was grey; the sky, the air, the faces of the people who stood around the mound of soil that now held her.

The Phelans were there, but I couldn’t tell you who because all I saw was one. Dark hair, dark suit and eyes that wouldn’t turn my way rocked me with a flash of emotion. It was a flash of color in my too-grey world. A flash of blue that hurt, a stabbing pain, like a spear of light when you’ve spent too long in darkness. The overwhelming urge to move to him, to touch, had locked my muscles. The knowledge that I had destroyed that right was like a wrecking ball to my chest.

As the words were said — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — I’d locked my knees as grief piled on grief.

All I could ask myself is how do I get through this without Mitch? The irony that the loss of Mitch is what makes this so hard isn’t lost on me. And it’s not the kind of irony that makes you smile a little, marvel at the twist of fate. It’s the kind of irony that makes you wonder if the universe always hated you.

Today is the final goodbye at the Glade. We’ve done the human part, the one that maintains our secret and allows the humans that Adelle touched to pay their respects. Now we do it our way.

We’re the first to arrive as per usual, although this time it’s warranted. The Alpha family are the ones who greet everyone else. Even the majesty of the Glade doesn’t bring life to my soul. I stand beside Mom and Dad, Kurt Junior in her arms, glad I don’t have to try and muster a smile. The Channons who file through are all somber as the occasion expects.

The only thing that sparks any life into me is the knowledge that I’ll be seeing Mitch again soon. I know it’ll hurt, and I know I’ll be slapped with his anger and his pain, but I’m so far gone that it doesn’t matter. Any contact with Mitch has my muscles straining as I stop myself from peering at the path that leads to the Glade.

About twenty people have arrived before I realize they’re all Channons. Not one Phelan has entered. I turn to Dad. “Where is everyone?”

Dad keeps his gaze straight ahead. “The people who should be here were invited.”

What does that mean? “There’s no Phelans.”

“Exactly.”

He didn’t invite the Phelans? “You mean it’s just Channons?”

Dad finally glances at me, a frown deeply embedded in his brows. “Adelle was a Channon, today is for our pack and our pack only.”

I glance away, processing that. Mom shifts Kurt Junior from one hip to another. The look she throws my way says one thing — drop it Tara.

But I still don’t get it. I look from Mom to Dad. “The Phelans have invited us when they’ve lost one of theirs.”

“Things are different now.”

With that Dad turns away, heading to where he’ll say his words.

The divide that I thought I’d imagined is becoming very real. Dad has spent years wondering if the Phelans were friends and allies, or competitors. Possibly a threat.

It seems he’s decided.

I look at Dad, strong and unwavering at the head of the Glade. When did it become us and them? The answer is clear. When Noah didn’t change. When the Phelans were no longer equal.

When Dad no longer saw them as competition.

But the Phelans are made strong by so much more than their pack hierarchy, their ties to the animal world. They have love and connection and each other. I glance around at my pack — my baby brother being raised by a village of Weres, at Seth being comforted by those who loved Adelle too, at every one of us who is connected by our blood and our strength. The Channons have always had that too.

And it’s what Adelle believed in too.

Dad speaks the words we all know, that I heard at Grandfather Garrett’s goodbye, and my uncle’s. They’re brief, sweet and can almost encapsulate a future without Adelle.

Dad closes his eyes. “Adelle Channon, we will always hear you.”

Then opens them, looking at us all. “We will always see you.”

He raises his arms, head tilting to the sun as he makes the final promise on behalf on his pack. “And we will always celebrate you.”

Silence holds those last words as each and every one of us considers the beautiful caress that Adelle was in our lives. It’s fitting and I wish Mitch were here to see it. I shy away from that thought, there’s enough sadness in this grassy enclosure at it is.

People start shuffling and moving. Normally, this is where we’d run. The pack would shift and head for the trees, hurtling their grief through the forest, howling their pain into the wind.

But Dad holds up a hand and everyone stills. “You all need to know that the land is no longer for sale.”

A ripple of shock flows through my pack.

“Adelle was well loved, and the land is now forever tainted by her loss. The investors have retracted their interest, and not even loggers have considered a bid.”

Smiles of relief flutter over faces.

Dad scans the Channons. “Remember. It is the Channons who made this happen, it is the sacrifice of one of ours that saved us.”

As chests expand with pride my own deflates. Dad is claiming this as a victory for the Channons? Since when was it a competition? And Adelle…would she have chosen to leave her son for this?

It almost feels like he’s using her…

I straighten, shocked at the mutinous thought. How could I think such a thing? Surely Dad’s felt some sense of responsibility, maybe a twinge of guilt that he ordered them to keep going that night. And I know all he wants is for the Channons to be strong. To endure. But do the Channons really need power and strength at any cost?

I suck in a sharp breath, telling myself those thoughts are disloyal and unwarranted. Strength is everything in the animal world. It dominates and it survives. Dad’s focus has always been on making us stronger – not for himself, but for his pack.

But I can’t deny I’m deeply uncomfortable with the direction that the Channons are taking. Maybe Dad shouldn’t have treated me like a pseudo-heir…maybe I would have ended up thinking like this anyway. Maybe he shouldn’t have let me spend so much time with the Phelans, the ones he’s now considering outsiders. Because like a snowball that gains momentum as it grows, an idea starts to gain critical mass.

Adelle’s last words float through my mind.

There’s more than one way to make a pack strong…

Chapter Eleven

A Time to Talk

The following day is the day we head to Dad’s wolf carving. I don’t think fate could have planned it better. It’s time alone from our forever-bustling house. It’s the time Dad is most likely to talk. But although it feels like the stars have aligned, to say I’m nervous is an understatement.

I’m stepping way beyond the line that has defined me. A first-born yes. But a female one. Anxiety doesn’t know if it wants to break out in a sweat or just call the whole ludicrous idea off.

But this is important, and there’s one thing that Dad taught me. You’d do anything for your pack.

I’m just hoping he’ll see this the way I see it.

The walk in is silent, like it always is. It’s fine by me, all the words I want to say are crammed into my head, a spinning vortex that’s making me queasy. I know that I’m going to have to choose them carefully, pluck the ones that have the power to persuade, while never losing sight of how little power I have.

Once we arrive I take my place, sitting and watching. So much hangs on this, and not just a future with the one who now holds my heart. Today I discover what the Channons stand for…and I finally define my relationship with my father. Because if Dad says no, then the suspicions I can’t shake become true. If he says no, I become Adelle. A much loved member of his pack, who he’s willing to sacrifice for his ambitions. Ambitions I don’t want to be part of.

It doesn’t take me long to notice that things are different this time — Dad doesn’t talk. He focuses on the intricacies of his creation and nothing else. I’m not sure if fate is giving me the go ahead, or whether it’s a not-a-good-time sign.

Blue eyes, deepwater eyes, flash above a smile I haven’t seen in longer than is bearable. I need to know.

“Dad.”

Tap, tap, scrape.

I clear my throat. “Dad.” I know his Were hearing couldn’t have missed it the first time.

“I need to focus on this part, Tara.”

This is my opportunity to back down. To stop the words that could possibly lose more than I’ve already lost.

To maintain the status quo.

“I wanted to ask you something.”

Tap, tap, scrape. “Fine.”

I’m not sure if this is easier with his back to me or not, but I’ve made my decision. “You were right…”

Tap, tap, scrape.

“Strength comes in numbers, in size. I think the Phelans —”

Dad’s hand comes up but he doesn’t turn around. “The Phelans aren’t who I thought they were. They don’t even have an Alpha heir.”

“But that could change.” Noah could change. “And they’re a well-respected pack, a strong ally. They’re someone we want to keep close.”

Dad resumes the tap, tap, scrape. It’s the signal that this conversation is going nowhere and is done. To continue would mean defying that unspoken communication.

I’m at the point of no return.

“I wish to bond with Mitch.”

At the words that hold no subtly whatsoever, that just slapped the silence rather than persuade, Dad spins to face me. He inflates, and I have to work on not shrinking back. “That’s what you want, Tara. Not what is best for the pack.”

I shake my head as I stand, needing him to understand. “A bonding between the Phelans and the Channons is nothing but advantageous.”

Dad is still frowning but silent, and I tell myself that’s a good sign.

“We form an alliance, the two biggest packs in Wyoming. Tensions dissolve, our strength is united.”

Dad still says nothing. Never before have I had an open mic. Never before have I wanted something so bad.

“The Channons will grow stronger.”

And I decide now is the time to be honest in a way I’ve never been before.

“Mitch paints my world with a color I’ve never seen before Dad, one that I didn’t know existed.” I hold his hazel gaze. “He paints my world with love.”

Surely Dad can see how much this means to me. Surely his first born daughter’s wishes are important to him.

Dad still doesn’t move, and his face is nowhere close to understanding. Actually, his low bushy brows and tense mouth are the polar opposite. Very slowly his eyes narrow. “You would defy me?”

My breath rattles out of my quaking chest. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to. The way I see it, I’m not choosing one or the other. I’m choosing both.”

I don’t say it, but the way I see it…Mitch is my pack.

He turns back to the rock. Tap, tap, scrape.

I deflate, unable to process what losing this fight could look like in all the tomorrows that stretch out before me.

“You’re suggesting a bonding with the Phelans?”

“Yes.” I whisper, hope once again lodged in my throat.

“And you have dared to question me because of this…love for a Phelan.”

Even though it’s not a question I answer anyway. “Yes.”

Tap, tap, scrape.

It’s my turn to be silent. It’s time to hear my future being molded by Dad’s words.

Tap, tap…

I hold my breath as the seconds draw taught.

“Very well.”

Those two words are so unexpected, they take another handful of seconds to sink in. I still have to check. “What?”

Dad turns around, face thoughtful and serious. “A bonding with the Phelans would be…advantageous.”

As joy streaks through my veins I leap up and launch myself at Dad. There’s a low ‘oomph’ as I connect with his mammoth chest, my arms wrapping around his neck. His bristly beard tickles my forehead as I hug him as hard as I can.

“Dad, you have no idea…” I choke up as he awkwardly pats my back.

I pull back, knowing this is the most affection my Dad and I have exchanged since…I can ever remember. He steps back and my arms fall to my side, but there’s a flush beneath his bushy beard.

“Tara, don’t forget you are a firstborn and a Channon. Your responsibility is to your pack first.”

I can feel my toes dancing in my shoes. “Always, Dad. Always.”

“Good.” He grunts as he turns back to the rock, like that wasn’t some life changing conversation. Within seconds the air fills with tap, tap, scrape.

I know I’m supposed to sit and watch, but I can’t. I walk to the spot I usually sit then turn. Three steps to the left and I hit a tree and turn again. In no time the tap, tap, scrape counts out my pacing from the sitting spot to the tree.

It worked! He said yes! Although this is how I hoped it would turn out, I never let myself dream it could happen. The Channons and the Phelans as allies, woven together by the one thing that powers my heartbeat. My love for Mitch.

Mitch. The one I’ve hurt in a way I never thought I would. Would he even want this now?

“Tara. Go.”

I stop, realizing my pacing hasn’t gone unnoticed. Dad doesn’t turn around, but I can imagine the annoyed frown. But I’m happy to oblige because it’s an invite I’m not going to refuse. With a last turn I head in the direction of home.

“Thanks, Dad.”

The euphoria that just took a hit slowly dwindles during the walk home. Because I never thought Dad would even consider my heartfelt wish I never thought as far ahead as talking to Mitch. What will I say to him? Is it too late?

I realize as I walk that even though I know how much ketchup he has on his fries, even though I know the exact length his hair will get to before he has to have a haircut, even though I can read the eddies and tides of his deepwater eyes like I grew up by the sea…

After sharing my whole life with Mitch, I have no idea how he’s going to react.

Chapter Twelve

A Moment is All You Need

I know the timing, the setting is important. My future is hanging on this moment. It has to be just right.

But in true Tara fashion, impatience has me at his house, on his porch, twenty minutes later.

I stand there, the door dominating my vision, suddenly at a loss. I don’t want to talk to his parents, not now. Not when I can’t explain this yet. I need to see how it ends.

My eyes sting.

I pull out my phone. Could we talk?

The reply buzzes in my palm almost instantly. I’m not up to it at the moment.

I grit my teeth as the tears threaten to overflow. Please?

This time there’s a pause, every second pulling my nerves taut. Fine. When?

I’d smile if I wasn’t so close to crying, I can practically hear his sigh. Now? I suck in some false courage and type the last two words. I’m downstairs.

I wait, but there’s no reply. Silence fills the air, taunting me.

My knees wobble and then give out. I plonk myself down on the nearest piece of furniture, thankfully right there beside the door. When my hand hits timber a second after my butt I look down.

It’s the bench. THE bench. And Mitch has placed it right next to the front door, for all to see on the Phelan front porch. I glance down and the smile finally arrives – a folded piece of cereal box is under the front left leg. A compressed, torn slice of Cheerios cardboard a reminder, a testament, of THE moment.

The door opens and I push up, my heart renewed by a burst of hope.

And stops.

In a t-shirt and grey sweats he looks casual, but the tense shoulders say differently. Mitch carefully and quietly closes the door. He jams his hands in his pockets and I watch him draw in a deep, deep breath. Please let it be a good thing that this is as hard for him as it is for me.

When he eventually, finally looks up, I lose all capacity to breathe. His face is drawn, a testament to how hard the past few weeks have been. My chest aches as I know it was me that played a big part in that.

“Well?”

Now that I’m here, I struggle to find the words. My throat works as my hands clench. Where do I start?

“Tara, I don’t think I’m up for this. Maybe we can talk at school.”

“No, I need you to hear what I have to say.”

Mitch shakes his head. “It’s okay, I get why you weren’t honest with me, Tara.”

The hurt of the past few weeks shifts in his eyes.

I look away, guilt bearing me down. “I know I wasn’t. And I’m so, so sorry.”

“But I think I understand why.”

My gaze rockets back to his.

“Your dad…he’s very…focused.”

“Understatement,” I mumble.

Mitch shrugs, desolation sucking at his shoulders. “I asked too much of you.”

That has my breath sucking in, then flying out. “Holy carp no.”

Mitch’s brows shoot up in surprise.

“You were totally right. The way you make me feel, the way we fit together…our love is something that should be fought for.” I hang on the precipice, knowing this is a jump I want to take. “So I asked Dad. I told him how important this is to me.”

It’s Mitch’s turn to be shocked. Astounded is what I’d use to describe the high brows, the slightly slack jaw. The silence not even broken by the sound of breathing.

“I told him that I love you. I’ve always loved you.” I step forward. “The truth is, I could never bond with anyone else.”

I wait, but Mitch seems frozen. He blinks, then blinks again. “And?”

I swallow, knowing the last barrier is about to be brought down, and then it will be up to him. “He said yes.”

Another flutter of eyelids. So help me, if those blue eyes blink one more time I’m going to be crushed by the tension that is building around us. But he doesn’t. It’s worse, he stands in wide-eyed shock.

When I’m lifted off the ground by strong arms, when the smile that fills my vision is so blinding I have to blink myself, I get my answer. Then I’m spinning and laughing, laughing and spinning. And Mitch, the one powering this carousel of joy, is laughing right along with me.

We finally slow and stop. Mitch’s eyes are wide when he asks, “Kurt said yes?”

“I told him that an alliance between our packs is a win for everyone.” I rest my palm on the face that still looks disbelieving. “I told him how I feel about you.”

Mitch slackens his hold and I slide down that delicious, hot bod. “That took some guts.”

My smile doesn’t waver. “Probably not how my Dad imagined the Channon grit to show itself.”

Mitch snorts, and I revel in the familiarity of our connection.

I push up on tippy-toes, wanting to revel in another feeling we’re so good at creating. “So, how do you feel about bonding after graduation?”

Mitch’s head tips down as his eyes darken. I breathe in cinnamon and citrus as his lips hover a heartbeat above mine. “Now that’s a moment I’m looking forward to.”

The instant our lips connect I simultaneously sigh and soar. Like a painting says a thousand words, Mitch’s kiss says everything. But a good painting will say its message simply and artlessly, and Mitch’s kiss says three words loud and clear.

I love you.

Chapter Thirteen

Much Later

Waiting in the school hall, my foot taps like this is the first time I’ve done this and I’m not sure how much longer before I see him. Every Monday I get here early so I can work in the art room. The painting that is slowly taking shape is everything I hoped it would be. But twenty minutes before the bell we meet at the lockers.

My foot feels like Tigger has possessed it. Is it normal so many months down the track to still feel this anticipation-that-is-probably-more-like-impatience? In a thousand ways, we’ve done everything a millions times before. Laugh. Talk. Dream. Kiss. Touch. To be honest, I don’t give a trash. Each and every day it feels amazing, as essential as aquamarine blue to a painting of deepwater eyes. The bonus is it’s brought our packs closer together.

The moment those dark chocolate locks appear through the doors Tigger zings up to my chest. My heart starts up an excited dance, the colors around me sharpen.

It’s his smile that slows everything down; so full of everything I’m feeling, so full of love. He takes too long to stand before me, but eventually he’s there, filling my senses with cinnamon and citrus. The kiss that graces my lips is the color of every one of those feelings — bright, shining and bursting with tenderness.

We pull back and I realize the usual background groans and ‘gross’ haven’t happened. “Where’s Noah?”

“He’s coming, said he forgot his biology assignment in the car.”

I take in the blue eyes that just dialed down to still and serious. My hand slips to his chest, resting over his wolf tattoo. “What’s up?”

Mitch’s sigh is heavy. “I’ve been named the Alpha heir.”

“But —” I start, only to discover I’ve got nothing.

“We couldn’t wait any longer. A pack without an Alpha heir is like…”

“A monarchy without a successor.” Unstable and vulnerable. “How did Noah take it?”

Mitch’s hand wipes down his face. “He’s the one who insisted Dad declare it. I think everyone was expecting it to happen, but Dad hated the idea of it.”

I frown. Did my dad see this coming? Probably. A thought hisses through my mind – did he suspect this was going to happen? I stomp on it, crushing it before it can gain strength. Dad could see that my upcoming bonding with Mitch would be good for our packs. That it was important to me. If he considered I’d be bonded to the Alpha heir, then that would have been nothing but icing on his daughter’s happy-cake.

I hold his blue gaze. “How do you feel?”

Another sigh puffs the air between us. “Like I’ve just stolen something I didn’t want.”

I rest my forehead on his chest. “You didn’t want this Mitch, I know it and Noah knows it. You’re just doing what’s best for your pack.”

Mitch’s arms wrap around me and we stay like that for long seconds. “It just sucks.”

I tighten my arms. “I know. But why this is all happening will make sense eventually, I can feel it.”

Mitch leans back and I look up into tender blue eyes. “I’m glad we’re bonding after grad. I can’t imagine what my life would look like if you weren’t part of it.”

I push up and brush my lips against his. “Now that’s a moment I’m looking forward to.”

I know I can face anything with Mitch. Because my faith is founded on something invincible — our love.

Our Were ears hear Noah approaching despite the students who are starting to filter in and mill around. With a last glance we turn to greet him.

Noah takes in our tight clasp and less-than-chirpy faces. He puts his hand up as if to stop us. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I sigh. “But Brad and Phoebe’s break up is so topical right now.”

Mitch nods sagely. “What does that bring the tally to?”

“I think we’re at six. One week I say.”

Mitch’s eyes widen. “Oh, a lengthy separation this time.”

Noah shakes his head, a rueful smile thinking of sparking in those hunky good looks of his. “You guys are…”

I slip my arm through each of theirs and point us in the direction of first period. “Gonna get you through this.”

These are two people who I love with all my heart, one I want to punch until he says sorry for stealing my toothbrush when we were six, the other I want to kiss until he can’t think straight.

Noah shakes his head, the embryonic smile dying. “I’m pretty sure we’ve just seen the finale.”

But mine doesn’t waver. “All you need is a moment Noah, all you need is a moment.”

 

###

A Moment for Tara was the prequel…

 

Prophecy Awakened

Book 1 in the Prime Prophecy Series

The power of their love will spark more than their hearts.

On the first day of her new school all that shy, wounded Eden wants is to finish her senior year and escape to college. It can’t be too much to ask for, can it?

Noah has spent two years not knowing why he failed to come of age as every one of his ancestors has. Two years drifting aimlessly, searching for direction…

When the two meet the connection is instantaneous and undeniable. A connection that has Eden running and Noah burning to know more.

A connection destined to be the catalyst for a prophecy that neither knew existed.

A prophecy others are willing to kill for.

As families rupture and struggle to realign, as their hearts connect and ignite, Eden learns to trust. But with their love and life on the line, Eden must find the power to believe.

Prophecy Awakened is the first book in Tamar Sloan’s Prime Prophecy Series. If you enjoyed Stephanie Meyer, Lauren Kate or Maggie Stiefvater, then you’ll love a series that captures their best traits in an epic, captivating story of a love that defies boundaries.

www.tamarsloan.com

I ABSOLUTELY loved this book from beginning to end. You are a truly lovely and wonderful author…Can’t wait for more.”

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p<>{color:#000;}. Amazon Review

 

What a phenomenal story! The writing style is eloquent, fluid and passionate…The story is brilliant, it draws you in from the first word and it doesn’t let go until the end.”

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Amazon Review

I am SO very happy that I read this book…I loved it, and it will not be my last.”

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p<>{color:#000;}. Goodreads Review

 

About the Author

A school psychologist by day, Tamar channels her passion for books into creating young adult stories about discovering life and love beyond our comfort zones. She is the award-winning author of the Prime Prophecy Series. Her debut novel, Prophecy Awakened, is an epic story of a love that defies boundaries. When not reading, writing or working with teens, Tamar can be found with her ever-patient husband and two beautiful sons enjoying country life on their small acreage in the Australian bush. 

 

Tamar finds it deeply rewarding to share her stories and she loves to hear from her readers and fellow lovers of all things book related. Connect with her on the following:

 

Friend me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com.au/tamarsloanwriter

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sloantamar

Visit my website: http://www.tamarsloan.com

 

 

 


A Moment for Tara

Her Heart or Her Pack? Tara grew up playing and laughing with her two best friends — twins Noah and Mitch. Life is uncomplicated and carefree — until she falls for one of them. The wrong one. Tara is the first born of her pack, and with the title comes responsibility — the expectation that she will bond with an Alpha heir to strengthen her pack’s standing…and Mitch was born seven minutes too late. Tara’s heart is torn when a deep connection with Mitch is awakened and she discovers the potential for so much more than friendship. But her mind knows what she must choose. When the impossible strikes Mitch’s family, when their sacred Glade is threatened, Tara is forced to decide — her heart or her pack? Positive Reviews of Prophecy Awakened - Book 1 in the Prime Prophecy Series What a phenomenal story!...The writing style is eloquent, fluid and passionate without crossing any boundaries. The story is brilliant, it draws you in from the first word and it doesn’t let go until the end. I highly recommend this book to any romance lover. — Goodreads Reviewer I ABSOLUTELY loved this book from beginning to end. You are a truly lovely and wonderful author . I am glad I got the chance to read this book about Noah and Eden. This IS MY TYPE of book. Can't wait for more. — Goodreads Reviewer

  • Author: Tamar Sloan
  • Published: 2017-05-11 04:20:12
  • Words: 24390
A Moment for Tara A Moment for Tara