Chapter 8 –
I was numb as I walked up the stairs to my apartment. Part of me hoped I was dreaming. Everything that had happened was too crazy to be real.
But the ache in my chest told me what I already knew. I was awake. I had claimed Darius Ardeshir as my mate, and now I was banished from the one place I had ever called home. All because I didn’t want him to die.
Darius walked beside me, surprisingly quiet for someone so big. I wanted to be angry at him, but I was too tired. There was a sharp pain in my head where my bond with the pack used to be. It was gone now, and without it, I felt empty. Alone.
What good was a wolf without a pack?
Paul and Elizabeth led the way to my apartment, and four of Justin’s enforcers boxed us in as we followed them. Hostility rolled off of them in waves, and I fought to keep my lips over my teeth. But I could read their body language loud and clear.
I was no longer a part of the pack.
Lone wolves were outsiders, something to be avoided at all costs. To be rejected by a pack meant that you were unworthy of that level of trust. You were unclean, dishonorable. We waited for a second as Paul opened the door to my apartment, and then he and Elizabeth walked in. Right. I couldn’t be left alone anymore.
Stifling a surge of bitterness, I followed them only to pause in the entryway, seeing everything and nothing at the same time. Darius waited behind me patiently.
It was strange. Several hours ago, this had been mine. My gaze drifted around the living room, noting my beat-up couch, the TV, and my guitar on its stand. On the weekends, Emily and I would spend hours on that couch, binge watching all of our favorite TV shows.
For a year, this had been my home. My den. And now it wasn’t.
I grit my teeth and ignored the memories as I walked through the living room and into my bedroom, Darius right behind me. Paul and Elizabeth didn’t follow us.
After pulling a duffel bag out from under my bed, I started to empty my closet. It didn’t take that long. When I had extra money, I didn’t spend it on clothes.
Darius cleared his throat from the door. “Do you need help?”
I bit back several nasty retorts and just shook my head. I needed to keep everything together in order to get us out of pack territory safely. Snapping at Darius and then sobbing because my life was in shambles wouldn’t help.
Once I was done with my closet, I moved to my bedside table. There were several pictures, along with a clock and a hand-me-down pink lamp I had never gotten around to replacing. I had a lot of pictures, mostly of Emily and me – us at a pack gathering, her twelfth birthday party, and the time I took her to a nearby amusement park. The one I wanted was in the very front.
In the picture, Emily and I were taking a nap in Justin’s backyard as wolves. Emily was lying against Sarai’s side with her tail tucked over her nose. Her coat was white with rich red markings on her face and back, compared to Sarai’s solid silver. Looking at the picture, I grinned a little. She used to be so small. I tucked the picture into my bag carefully.
Turning back to my bedside table, I grabbed a smaller frame hidden behind my lamp. In it was a photograph that both haunted and comforted me.
The woman was in her early thirties, her dark hair falling around her laughing face. To this day, I could still remember the exact pitch of that laugh. Her green eyes were bright, and her smile was infectious. She was, simply, beautiful. In her arms, she held a squirming wolf pup holding a very unfortunate raccoon.
And my mother, Rochelle.
When I lived with my father’s pack, the wolves always told me how much I reminded them of my mom. I used to hate it, thinking that they were comparing me to this amazing woman that I could never be. I wondered what they would say now. I wondered what my mother would say.
I saw Darius move out of the corner of my eye, but my gaze remained glued to the picture. What would you think, mom? Would you still be proud of me?
“Why are you holding a dead raccoon?” Darius asked softly.
“It was my first kill. I was four.”
Darius was silent for a minute. Then in a gentle voice, he said, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t mean very much, but I wish things had turned out differently. Then maybe you and I would never have met, and she would still be here.”
I glanced up at him to find his dark eyes sincere. “Maybe,” I replied, looking back down at my mother. “We’ll never know, will we?” Before he could say anything else, I tucked the picture next to the one of Emily.
After I zipped my bag shut, Darius grabbed the strap and swung it onto his shoulder easily. “I can handle this. You get your guitar.”
“What if I didn’t want to bring my guitar?” I retorted as I followed him into the living room. It wasn’t true; I loved my Fender and where I went, it went. But I didn’t like his bossy tone.
He looked back at me with a small smile. “You’re going to want it eventually.”
Oh no, not that ‘I know what you need better than you do’ tone.
“Tell me, city boy,” I said as I walked over to my guitar. “Have you ever appreciated how often you use your thumbs?”
Darius leaned against the arm of my couch and frowned at me. “What kind of question is that?”
“Give me one more order, and you will.”
He opened his mouth and then closed it. Good. He was learning.
Paul and Elizabeth waited as I zipped my guitar into its case and grabbed my binder of sheet music. With all of my worldly possessions split between Darius and me, I glanced at the two wolves. “We’re ready.”
As we followed Paul and Elizabeth out of my apartment, the lump in my throat suddenly solidified. I was really leaving. These people were my pack. They weren’t perfect, not by a longshot, but neither was I. They had accepted me with open arms when I needed it most, and now, they didn’t want me.
I clenched my jaw and tried to keep my face calm as we walked down the stairs. These wolves may not want me, but I would be damned if they saw me show even a hint of weakness now. Three years ago, I came here weak, but I was going to leave strong.
We got through the rest of the building without an incident. But just as Paul opened the door that led to the parking lot, I heard another door open behind us, and a tentative voice said, “Riley?”
Sarai whined as something in my chest fractured, but somehow, I kept walking. There was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t talk to her, not as a lone wolf. Instead, I followed Paul outside, hoping, praying that Maria would keep her in their apartment.
“Riley?” Emily called again, and I swallowed a curse. Her voice was closer this time. “Riley, what are you doing?”
I bit my tongue until I tasted blood. Why wasn’t anyone taking her back inside? Where were Maria and Renaldo?
Paul opened the trunk of his old Jeep and stepped back, letting Darius and I stow my things. My arms were strangely jerky as I set my guitar down next to my bag.
“Riley, look at me,” Emily begged as Paul shut his trunk. “Why aren’t you looking… No, let go of me! Riley!”
I turned without thinking. It was hard to break instincts that were so ingrained. Justin’s enforcers were a wall of solid muscle, separating Emily and me. Micah had a hold of her arm, but Emily ignored him the second she saw me. Her brow was furrowed in confusion, but the tears swimming in her eyes were full of pain.
“Riley?” She said, and there was a shred of hope in her voice, hope that I would call her to my side like I always did. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say and that made me want to cry and scream until my throat hurt more than my heart.
Instead, I made my voice as lifeless as I could. “Go back inside.” And then I turned my back on her.
Darius opened one of the doors for me as Emily cried, “No wait, Riley, you can’t leave! Riley, please!”
Hating myself more with every breath, I climbed into the Jeep. Darius got in after me, and even though he shut the door, I could still hear Emily crying. Paul and Elizabeth shared a look in the front seat, then he began to drive, taking me away from everything that mattered. Justin… Emily… I left it all behind me.
“I can’t believe you thought nobody would notice you in this car.”
It was the first time Rilynn had spoken since we left. Her white skin was pale, and her lips had remained pressed into a thin line as the wolves dropped us off at the hotel, and I stowed her things in the trunk of my car.
We left Kamiah behind us, and still, she didn’t say a word. Until now. After what had happened with that girl, I was impressed she found the strength to speak at all.
“Excuse me?” I said gently, following her lead. “You must be mistaken. Charli is a Mustang GT, not some stupid robot Camaro.”
Rilynn scoffed, although her expression was still fragile. “Mustang, Camaro, same difference.”
“Same difference?” I looked at her pointedly and then rubbed the dashboard soothingly. “Don’t worry, baby, we both know you’re better than any Chevy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Kamiah is a logging town,” she said. “People drive trucks or SUVs. Not brand new sports cars.”
“That’s why I parked at the hotel,” I replied. “To blend in in plain sight.”
“Did you check in?”
“Of course not. I wasn’t planning on staying overnight.”
“And in a town this small, you didn’t think that would be weird?”
I shrugged. “I knew Charli would be noticed. I just hoped no one would connect the dots until I was long gone.”
She rolled her eyes again. “Unbelievable.”
The truth was I had thought about driving a different car. My aunt had an older Mercedes that didn’t stand out quite as much as my bright red Mustang, but then Charli would’ve pouted. My baby didn’t like being left behind.
A few minutes later, Rilynn cleared her throat. “So, ah, what’s the plan now?”
Trying to maintain the joking atmosphere, I gasped. “Did you just say what I think you said?”
She frowned. “What? ‘What’s the plan?’”
“Yeah. I didn’t even think you knew what ‘plan’ meant,” I said, shifting in my seat until I could drive with one hand. “Is the world ending?”
“Hey, I plan things.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Really? Alright then, Rilynn, where do you think we should go?”
“Ok one, don’t ever call me ‘Rilynn’. Call me Riley. And two, why do I have to figure out where we should go? You’re the one with the giant scheme to end the war. This is your show now.”
I kept my surprise to myself. With as guarded as she was, I thought it would take her longer to trust me with her nickname. “So you’re still on board with that? Ending the war?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Just making sure.” I took a deep breath, crossing my fingers mentally that she wouldn’t react too poorly to what I was about to say. “The way I see it, we only have one option. We need to go to the Pride.”
Her face went a little slack. “The Pride.”
“Think about it,” I said patiently. “Out here in the middle of nowhere, we’re nobodies. But if we want to make a difference, we have to go to a place where we matter.”
Riley’s voice was still impassive as she said, “You want me to go to the Pride.”
“I’m assuming we can’t go to any pack because of the whole ‘lone wolf’ thing. But I’m still the Heir of the American Pride. We have contacts everywhere, and I have access to those contacts because of my status.”
“Would we have any allies?” Riley asked, drumming her fingers against her thigh.
“Several I can think of off the top of my head,” I replied easily, liking that she was already referring to us as ‘we’. “More if we play our cards right.”
“And if we play them wrong?”
“We won’t.” At this point, we couldn’t afford it.
She sighed unhappily. “That’s the only option we have?”
“The only one that doesn’t involve starting a secret underground rebellion.”
“Alright,” she said tiredly. “Let’s go to the Pride. It’s not like my life can get any worse.”
Instead of pointing out that it probably could, I turned on my radio. I needed to unwind a little, and like my grandmother had taught me, music was the perfect outlet. As the orchestra started, I took a deep breath. That was better.
Riley immediately glared at the speakers. “What is this?”
I leaned back in my seat and said, “This is La Traviata performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra.”
“And what is that?”
“La Traviata? It’s an opera-”
“Opera? So that screeching is supposed to be singing?” She asked, the disbelief clear in her voice.
I frowned at her, but tried to sound patient. “It’s my favorite version, and it’s quite soothing, so I thought-”
“This is not soothing,” she retorted. “Kansas is soothing. Queen is soothing. This is making my ears bleed.”
“La Traviata has been around since the 1800’s-”
“So has smallpox.”
My cat grumbled at her contrariness. “Technically, the first documented cases of smallpox were in Egyptian mummies, and it was completely eradicated in 1967.”
She stared at me in shock. “How do you even know that?”
I held up a hand so she wouldn’t interrupt me. “My point is that this opera has been around for about 150 years, and I can’t even name one song by Queen. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the quality is.”
“Ok, now you’re the one screeching.”
“You… don’t… you don’t know any…?” She couldn’t seem to string together a complete sentence until she took a deep breath and said, “Turn the car around.”
I chuckled a little. “What?”
“I said turn the car around,” she repeated, and I recognized the stubborn look in her green eyes. “I refuse to mate with someone who thinks this,” she gestured to my speakers, “is better than Queen.”
I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. I thought she was joking. Hopefully. “What about going to the Pride and ending the war?”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Because of some 80’s rock band?”
“They formed in 1970, thank you very much.”
I shook my head. “That still doesn’t mean that Queen has the same scope as La Traviata.”
“They’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” she said tartly. “They’re albums – plural – have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. How can you even compare that to this junk?”
“Renata Scotto is not junk,” I retorted.
“I can’t understand a word she’s saying.”
“That’s because she’s singing in Italian!”
We continued to bicker as we flew down the highway. She refused to admit that opera was an art form, while I claimed that no one would remember Queen had ever existed in 150 years.
In short, we were back in familiar territory.
I don’t know how I managed it, but after Darius and I quit speaking to each other, somehow, I actually fell asleep. Nothing like three solid hours of adrenaline to help a girl get a little shuteye.
A hand on my leg woke me up, and I jumped as the musky smell of cat filled my nose.
“Wha…” I mumbled. Where was I? And why couldn’t I move?
“Relax,” a male voice murmured. “We’re here.”
I blinked several times, finally registering that I couldn’t move because I was wearing a seatbelt. Why… oh yeah. Rubbing my eyes, I asked, “And where’s here?”
“Mountain Home, Idaho,” Darius answered. “We could both use some real sleep, so I just got us a room.”
The bank of lights by the office illuminated a small parking lot in front of a two-story motel, the kind that featured prominently in old horror movies. I could hear the faint rumble of the interstate in the distance. After getting my bag from his trunk, Darius led me to our room.
As we walked inside, old scents assaulted me, and I wrinkled my nose in disgust. Bleach, sweat, laundry detergent for the sheets, and the disgusting smell of so many people that I couldn’t separate all of them. Shaking my head slightly, I tried to ignore my nose and hoped that I wouldn’t get a headache.
Darius flicked on the lights. There were two double beds with floral patterned comforters, an old TV, a scratched chest of drawers, and a yellowish door that led to an equally bland and dirty looking bathroom.
“You couldn’t have stopped at an actual hotel?” I asked, looking at the beds suspiciously.
“A hotel would require photo ID,” Darius replied tiredly, locking the door behind him. “And that kind of defeats the purpose of staying off the grid.” He set our bags on the table and then threw himself onto the nearest bed, sighing in relief.
“It wouldn’t give us lice either,” I muttered.
Darius rolled his face out of his pillow. “What?”
He must be tired, Sarai said. That’s the first time he’s only said one word.
“Nothing,” I replied. He nodded and then closed his eyes again.
Deciding to follow his example, I moved to the other double bed and pulled the gross looking comforter off. The sheets, at least, smelled clean. I sat down and immediately made a face at the rock hard mattress. Scooting back a little, I leaned against the headboard and tried to relax.
Darius was already asleep, his breathing deep and even. He had driven for – I checked the clock – 4 and ½ hours plus the stress before we left. I focused on his breathing, hoping the rhythmic sound would help me fall back asleep.
No such luck.
I sat up and all of the anxiety I had ignored earlier started to resurface. Sighing, I got up and started to pace. My feet didn’t make a sound on the shag carpet and the only things I could hear were Darius’s breathing and the distant road noise from the highway.
Questions kept popping into my mind as I walked. What was going on with Justin? Had he told my father what I’d done? Would Aleksi send wolves after us? Or would he just wait for the Pride to kill me? If Darius was going to be the King, did that mean I would be the Queen?
Suddenly feeling trapped, I stopped pacing. No. That was one question too many.
Without hesitating, I ripped my clothes off and darted out of the room, letting the smell of the city and night wash over me. The door shut behind me just as I finished Shifting. Being human was too much right now.
Sarai stretched and scented the air leisurely before trotting out of the parking lot and down the street. She kept to the shadows, content with exploring this new territory. There wasn’t a pack anywhere near Mountain Home, so I wouldn’t have to worry about running into any unfriendly wolves. Besides, moving around in different territory would ground both of us.
I’d deal with my fear in the morning. But for now, Sarai was in charge.