She lay beside him staring blankly at the ceiling. The deed was done. They were mated. It didn't matter that she had no love for him nor he for her. Political alliances were more important than feelings, or so she had been told. That fact was cold comfort right now as her heart broke within her.
Beside her, he stirred and she sensed him rolling over, his amber eyes staring at her. She made no move to look at him and instead tried to steady her breathing. It was no use. As she inhaled, her breath quivered betraying her emotional state. Despite blinking rapidly, a stray tear trailed down her cheek.
The covers rustled beside her and then she felt his finger move across her face catching the droplet. "I'm sorry, Elise." Kane's voice was deep yet gentle.
"It doesn't matter." She answered quietly, still staring at the ceiling. What he was apologizing for she was unsure. The situation was as beyond his control as it was hers. She swallowed hard. "It couldn't be helped."
"No, it couldn't," he agreed, sighing heavily. His arm slipped around her waist and drew her closer. She let her cheek rest against his muscular chest, too spent to protest; the sound of his steady heartbeat was faintly comforting. "I wish I could have given you more time to get to know me first, but the Elders wanted our union sealed immediately."
She nodded, her mind agreeing even though her heart cried in protest. The good of the pack won out over that tender organ; the fact she loved another—Bryan—a moot point.
Closing her eyes, scenes from the past day flashed through her mind...
She'd just returned from a run with Bryan where they'd frolicked and played in the cool shaded woods that surrounded her home. He'd been her best friend since they were pups and recently the friendship had grown into something more. Bryan had hinted that he would ask her father for permission to become her mate and she'd been thrilled at the idea. Many of her friends were already mated and, as her nineteenth birthday approached, she was becoming restless, eager to experience bonding with another, but her father had held off choosing her a partner. Naively, she'd thought he was waiting for her to find someone who suited her.
Now she acknowledged that was never the case. While her father loved her, he was first and foremost their Alpha and had to put the well-being of the pack ahead of all else. Her older brother and sister had mated with packs to the north and south. With the sea at their back, it was only to the east that an alliance was needed. When Kane became the new Alpha of that territory, the Elders determined that a union between the packs was needed to ensure continued stability.
That day, as she returned laughing at something Bryan had said, Jake, her father's Beta, had greeted her at the door. "Elise, you're needed in the assembly room."
Something in his tone of voice warned her that all was not well. With a wave to her friend, she followed Jake curious as to what could possibly require her presence. The assembly room was used on occasion for general pack meetings, but usually her father and the council of Elders dealt with all important issues.
As she pushed the door open, a cacophony of emotions hit her; excitement, worry, curiosity. She puzzled over the strange mixture of moods while scanning to see who was present. In the far corner, the Elders appeared pleased as they conversed with another group of older persons, all of whom were strangers to her. Her father, near the middle of the room, had a serious expression on his face and was talking to a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties. She hadn't encountered him before so, rather than approaching her father, took some time to study this new arrival.
The man was taller than her father, at least six foot four, and powerfully built. His shoulders were broad, muscles rippling beneath his shirt as he gestured to make some point. Dark hair topped a pleasing face, with sculpted cheeks and a full bottom lip.
Possibly sensing her inspection of him, he glanced towards the door and his amber eyes locked on hers. There was a hard edge about him, a commanding presence that made her feel as if she were pinned in place. Slowly he studied her from head to foot, his gaze lingering on her body, before returning to her face. She felt herself flush under his scrutiny. As he flashed a brief smile at her, she thought she caught a glimpse of softness in his eyes, but it was quickly gone and he returned his attention to her father.
She sulked. For some reason his apparent dismissal of her rankled.
Her father glanced her way, sighed, and ended his discussion with the stranger. He walked towards her with a scowl on his face. "Elise, you've been running again, I see."
Her reflection in a nearby mirror showed her long brown hair was messy and a faint sheen of sweat gave her sun-kissed skin a dewy look. Noting a smudge of dirt on her nose, she scrubbed it off. Turning towards her parent, she gave a sheepish grin aimed at cajoling him out of his mood. "It was too nice a day to stay indoors."
"But what did I tell you? It isn't safe to be out alone in wolf form. It's hunting season and even though our property is posted, the humans don't always heed—"
"I was with Bryan and we didn't go near the edge of the property. We aren't fools, you know."
"Ah...Bryan..." Her father frowned, and then sighed again. "Elise, I have something to tell you. As you might know, the pack to the east has a new Alpha. His name is Kane." He nodded towards the man standing across the room and Elise shot him a glance again before smiling with polite interest at her father's news.
"He's come to meet you?" She wondered why she was being summoned. The politics between the packs had never been of concern to her. Her father didn't involve her in council meetings, yet clearly, she could only assume that the gentlemen in the corner talking to the Elders of her pack must be representatives from the eastern group.
"Yes, Kane is here to meet me...and you."
"Me?" She couldn't contain her surprise and a strange quivering feeling began to develop within her.
"Yes, you. It has been decided by the Elders that with a new Alpha in charge, a fresh alliance should be created. Kane is willing. He will be mated to you and our packs will continue to live in peace."
"Mated? To me?" She knew her mouth was hanging open in shock. Darting a glance across the room, she saw Kane staring at her blandly, his hands behind his back. If her expression offended him, he didn't show it. She looked at her father, blinking to hold back the tears that threatened to fall. "But... What about Bryan?"
"I'm aware you've had your eye on him, but this is for the good of the pack. We need strong alliances so that we can guard against the human threat. And, allied packs allow access between territories and increase the area in which we have to roam." He stopped speaking and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I know this is a surprise, but don't worry. Kane is a good man. He'll make you a fine mate."
Her mouth had suddenly gone dry and she clenched her fists her sides. Was this how her sister had felt when she had found out she'd been betrothed to a male from the north? At the time, Elise had only been twelve and had been more excited about the festivities than concerned for her sister's feelings. Now the shoe was on the other foot and she found the fit to be decidedly uncomfortable.
Finding her voice, she began to protest. "But that's the old way of thinking! Alliances aren't needed anymore. We've gone beyond pack wars, and as for the human threat, most don't even know we exist!" In desperation, she began to toss out facts and opinions to counter the decree that had been delivered to her.
"Packs co-exist peacefully because of the long-standing tradition of alliances. Unions between packs join us together and ensure respect of territories." Her father kept his tone even, but she sensed he didn't enjoy having to explain this to her. He was from the old tradition, as were many in her pack, and expected unquestioning obedience. As the youngest in the family, she'd been treated more leniently than the others; less had been expected of her. Now she could hear the implicit lecture: she should have paid more attention to pack politics, taken an interest in what was going on; if she had, she would already know these things.
He continued to speak. "And the human threat is still real. Not so much that they know we exist, but that they continually try to encroach on our territories. We need to be united and stand firm against selling our land to developers."
She opened her mouth to protest again, but her father's stern look had her shutting it, leaving the words unspoken. It was useless to protest. The Elders had decided and the Alpha had concurred with their decision. To go against the edicts of the pack would result in being cast out. She'd lived her whole life in a pack. The concept of being alone was unthinkable, yet the idea of mating with a total stranger was also abhorrent.
"When?" She managed to pronounce one word.
"Tonight. There is no use in waiting. Kane and his council are here. A dinner is being prepared and the rest of the pack is being notified. We'll conduct the ceremony as the moon rises."
Three hours and she would be bonded for life to a man she'd never met before today. She could hardly process the thought. Suddenly she realized that someone was speaking to her. Looking up, she saw Kane had moved forward and was standing beside her father.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Elise." His voice was deep and low, his eyes steady on hers.
Somehow, she managed to croak out a hello. Kane appeared even larger up close and she wished she had more inches to her height. At five foot six inches, she was an average size, but next to the new Alpha, she felt positively petite. Her father nudged her with his elbow and she noticed that Kane had extended his hand towards her. Tentatively, she reached out and took it. The warmth of his skin immediately enveloped her and shot up her arm. Startled, she craned her neck to look up at his face and noted a smile pass over his mouth.
"I think we will suit each other." He nodded to her father and then gave her hand a squeeze. "I'll see you later at the ceremony." Kane looked her up and down again before taking his leave and heading over to where the councils were meeting.
"Elise, I must go. There's other business to attend to today before the ceremony." Her father kissed her on the forehead and gave her a gentle push towards the door, effectively dismissing her. "Go and find Sarah. She's been instructed to help you get ready." Sarah was Jake's wife and in some ways like a surrogate mother to her. Hunters had killed Elise's own mother years ago and her father had never taken another mate.
She considered running away and going into hiding but knew that wasn't possible. There was nowhere to hide that she couldn't be found, short of taking a car and driving off, yet even if she did then what? She had no money to speak of, nowhere to go...
The rest of the day passed in a blur. She tried to tell Sarah of her reservations but was shushed. It was for the good of the pack. Being mated to an Alpha would give her status. He would take good care of her. The well-meant words swirled around her.
She wanted to find Bryan, to cry on his shoulder and feel his arms around her offering comfort one last time, but that too had been denied her. It wouldn't be proper. There was no time. Were these actual reasons or just excuses? Either way, the result was the same. Three hours later, she was seated at a table beside a man she didn't know.
As she looked around, her heart thudding heavily in her chest, she noted that the hall had been decorated with fall flowers and the best china set out. Linen cloths adorned the tables and various dishes of meat and vegetables, rolls and salads appeared. It always amazed her how Sarah could pull a meal together for a small army on a moment's notice.
No doubt, the food was delicious, but she merely moved it about on her plate, unable to manage even a bite. Well wishes from her pack members were given followed by speeches from the Elders, and then the bonding ceremony began. Kane escorted her to the front of the room and words were spoken which she didn't even hear, let alone comprehend. Worst of all were the agonized looks exchanged with Bryan who stood across the room as the final vows were spoken and her wrist was bound with Kane's by a ceremonial leather rope.
Tied together, Kane led her from the hall to one of the guest cabins that were located not far from the main house where the Alpha resided. He hadn't spoken directly to her since their initial meeting and she cast sidelong glances up at him as they walked across the moonlit lawn. Should she say something to break the silence? Her thoughts raced for an appropriate comment, but none came to mind. Banal talk about the weather seemed ridiculous under the current circumstances and she was too nervous to come up with anything else.
It was not in the nature of an Alpha to be unkind to a member of the pack unless they flaunted his authority, and she hoped Kane would be considerate of her. If it was Bryan, it would be different. She had feelings for him. The thought of being with Bryan excited her creating a warmth low in her belly, while the idea of being with Kane only made her stomach muscles clench.
The cabin loomed in front of them. Situated at the edge of the forest with trees all around, it gave the impression of seclusion. It was made of logs and had a weathered look from years of exposure to the elements but was still well maintained with a solid stone chimney, shuttered windows, and a small porch. Kane pushed the door open and gestured for her to enter, following close behind since their wrists were still tied. He shut the door and flicked on the lights, illuminating the room that featured a small kitchenette, eating area and a sofa in front of a fireplace. There was a door to the left that led to a bedroom and a small bathroom.
"Well." Kane spoke, causing her to jump. "First order of business would be to remove this, wouldn't you say?" He held up their joined wrists and she nodded in agreement. Pulling a jackknife from his pocket, he cut the rope letting it fall to the ground. Immediately, she pulled her arm away and rubbed her wrist. It wasn't really sore—the tie hadn't been tight—but the leather had still chafed and the enforced proximity had been uncomfortable.
Kane was also rubbing his wrist. "We have a similar reaction to being imprisoned, I see." He nodded towards the action of her hands.
"Yes." She wasn't sure what else to say.
Silence stretched between them.
Kane rubbed his neck and stared around the room. Did he find the situation as unnerving as she did? Had he really wanted to be her mate, or was he turning his back on someone he loved for the good of his pack, as well? Did she dare ask? Before she had time to decide the wisdom of such a question, he addressed her again. "It's getting late. Would you like to use the bathroom first?"
"All right." She could feel his gaze boring into her back as she walked away, and she forced herself to keep her pace at a normal speed despite wanting to run from the room. As she passed through the bedroom, she noted that someone had made up the bed and her nightgown was lying near the foot. Snagging it in her hand, she entered the bathroom and closed the door.
Relief washed over her and she slumped against the panel. For a few minutes, at least, she would have some privacy and be free of Kane's presence. It wasn't that he was displeasing to look at; in other circumstances, she would have admired his physique. And his manner towards her had been polite, if a bit distant, so there was nothing she could complain about in that regard. The problem was that Kane wasn't Bryan.
Her stomach clenched again and once more she thought of escaping, but where? She couldn't survive without a pack. Wolves were social animals. To be an outcast was an unthinkable fate. Besides, she'd have nowhere to live, no means of support, and then there was always the fear of detection. It hadn't happened in years, but that wasn't to say that if a Lycan became careless someone couldn't put the clues together. Caution was drilled into a Lycan's head from the moment of birth, and all had a fear of being hunted down. No, she couldn't leave.
Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she undid the simple French braid Sarah had fashioned for the ceremony. Her green eyes seemed wider and a deeper shade than normal, contrasting with her unusually pale complexion. Faint lines of tension showed on either side of her mouth and her jaw ached from being tightly clenched. As a matter of fact, her whole person was tense. Hoping a hot shower would help, she turned on the taps, stripped and stepped into the stall.
The pounding water beat down on her body, the white noise and rising steam creating a temporary cocoon. She closed her eyes and forced herself to relax, letting her mind drift back to the afternoon when she and Bryan had been running together.
A smile drifted across her face at the memory. It had been so much fun running like the wind; feeling her muscles stretched to the limit as she sought to out-distance her companion. Bryan had tackled her to the ground and they'd rolled about, nipping at each other before bounding away, only to jump and tumble again. She'd nuzzled him and he'd licked her face, then they'd run back to the pack house transforming into human form just inside the edge of the woods. Her hair had still had grass stuck in it. Bryan had picked it out before resting his hands on her shoulders and hinting at speaking to her father.
It hadn't happened of course and never would. Her youthful hopes and dreams had been dashed, pushed aside by the political planning of Elders. Did they even remember what it was like to be young? To feel the day brighten at the sight of the one you love? To feel your heart race at the sound of that special person's voice and your skin tingle at the softest touch of their hand?
She shivered and realized the water was growing cold. Reaching out, she shut off the faucet with a shaking hand. She'd delayed as long as she could. Kane would be waiting for her.
Donning her nightgown, she went to meet her fate.
Her thoughts had brought her full circle and now she was pressed against Kane's chest, his arm around her waist. She felt trapped both by his limb and the fact that her life was now bound to his. The future loomed ahead. What would it be like to spend the rest of her life with this man? To share his bed? Bear his young? Grow old beside him? Did he like to run in the forest or would he be too busy with his duties as Alpha to spend time with her? And who were the members of his pack? She'd have to leave her friends and family behind. Her new position as his mate would guarantee her respect, but would anyone be her friend or was she destined for a lonely existence?
Fear and doubt tumbled through her mind as she fell into a restless sleep.