Forty years ago
Before the destruction
“He never notices me.” Carrie White threw the piece of grass she’d picked back onto the ground. “It’s like I don’t even exist. We grew up on this island together. The least he could do is look my way.”
Victoria rolled her eyes before she stood up. Completely naked, her best friend raised her arms toward the sun. Carrie had never cared whether her fellow shifters covered themselves after the changes. Some of the older pack members preferred everyone to hurry and clothe themselves after every shift, but she’d grown up so used to the nudity, she hardly noticed it. Besides, in the world outside Westervelt, lots of people seemed to go around half-dressed or actually nude. She didn’t care. Except for the fact that at the moment she coveted Victoria Trope’s breasts.
“Who cares if they notice you or not? They’re all Kanes. They’re royalty and they know it. Attitude comes straight through their pores into the constant sneer on their faces. I wouldn’t want to end up with one of them, and I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to mate with them either.”
“I bet if I had your breasts Tristan Kane would notice me.”
He seemed the nicest out of all of them. Michael spent his life with his head tucked in a book, Az had gone off to study with the humans at some university and come back speaking about medical terms she didn’t understand, Rex always seemed on edge. Theo saw a threat everywhere they went, which left Tristan. He’d probably make a great mate.
“Why do you want Tristan? He’d bore you to death in two minutes with all of his talk about building structures. If I had to pick a Kane, and I never would, I’d want Gabriel.”
“Gabriel?” Carrie stood up to stretch as Victoria had. Her bones had finally relaxed after the fast run they’d given their wolf bodies. “He never speaks to anyone.”
“You’re right. That’s what I’d like about him.”
Carrie grinned. Victoria had always been a sourpuss. Nothing changed for them, not ever. Some of the pack railed against that, but Carrie loved the consistency. She knew her place in the world, in the pack, in the universe. Someday she’d mate. Even if it didn’t happen to be with Tristan Kane. And when she died, her mate would follow her into the next world and hold her there forever, their eternal bond a gift bestowed upon them by the gods who loved and cared for shifters.
“You keep talking like that, Victoria, and you’re going to end up mated to some human.”
Her best friend grinned. “I hope I’m that lucky. And we’ll have beautiful half-bred shifter children. Girls. You know I can’t stand male shifters.”
“By the gods, you have your whole life mapped out for you.” Carrie couldn’t imagine that.
“Yes. And we’ll name them Ashlee and Summer. I read those names in a book I picked up the last time I went off island for supplies. Not names we use here. They’ll be mine, and they’ll be spectacular for having been raised in my presence.”
Gabriel’s scent drifted over her just seconds before he spoke. “Watch out, human males everywhere. Victoria is on a mating hunt.”
Carrie spun around to stare at him. How had he done that? She should have had lots of warning of his arrival. He stared at Victoria, who promptly rolled his eyes at him. Then his gaze shifted, taking Carrie in. While she hadn’t cared before, now she felt acutely aware of her naked body. Her cheeks heated up and she covered her breasts.
“Did you do that on purpose? Hide your scent? Stay in the woods downwind so you could, what, spy on us?”
He shook his head, once again regarding Victoria. Two little lines formed between his dark eyebrows. Victoria did that to a lot of people. His brown, almost black eyes narrowed as he inspected Carrie’s friend and Carrie noted his fully dressed state. His jeans and burgundy T-shirt brought out the tan of his skin. “It’s not my problem, wolf, if you don’t guard yourself. You were trained. You were all trained. By me, as a matter of a fact. Stay on alert. Don’t assume we’re fine because we’re home. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need to learn to fight at all.”
“We’re wolves. We fight.” Carrie didn’t know why she spoke out the way she did. Whenever Gabriel had actually uttered words in the past, she’d stayed silent. He was royal and the captain of his father’s guard, and pack members ran when he approached. She didn’t scurry away, just most of the time she couldn’t find her voice.
“That’s true.” He smiled at her and her heart did an extra thump. “Victoria, go find something to do. I want to speak to Carrie.”
Her friend looked at her for a moment before she changed shape and left, running on four legs for the woods. No one argued with Kendrick’s sons, not when it really counted. If Gabriel wanted to speak to Carrie, he’d speak to her. Only she had no idea what she might have done to have earned Gabriel’s attention. Had she been slack in some kind of duty? Had Kendrick sent him?
Her wolf’s interruption startled her. Finally what?
You want to be alone with him?
Her wolf didn’t answer and Gabriel started talking, bringing her attention back to the world outside of her own mind.
“I’ve been waiting to talk to you. Now seemed like a good time. Well, it seemed pivotal to speak now, I suppose.”
She swallowed. “I’m not sure what I’ve done.”
“What you’ve done?” He shook his head, a strand of his brown hair falling into his eyes. “No. Nothing like that. Please, Carrie. Don’t ever be nervous around me. Not you. Ever.”
The wind picked up, bringing his scent to her again. It was wild and spicy like ginger, and yet his scent still carried the smell of springtime in their woods. Goose bumps broke out on her arms. She wanted to shift and rub up against him until she carried the uniqueness of Gabriel on her skin.
Oh my gods. If she craved a marking, needed to have his essence inside of her, then…
Ah, so the dense one finally caught on. Her wolf smiled, settling down. It’s about time.
“I had hoped that by now you would have felt something I’ve known to be true since you were a young girl.” He swallowed and she saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down. “I haven’t been exactly proud of that, the idea that I knew when you were still so young, but I’ve left you alone so you could have a life without me bothering you all the time.”
“You watch me.” Her mouth had gone dry. “Without speaking to me. Ever.” His silence unnerved her, made her head hurt. She tried not to think about it too often.
Contemplating Gabriel made her skin feel too tight. There are good reasons for that.
Why didn’t you tell me? Her heart rate sped up.
You have to find your mate. I couldn’t thrust you right into it.
“I’ve spoken to you. Nearly confessed myself to you about a half a dozen times during your training five years ago.”
“That’s not what I meant—”
“Of course, I know what you mean. As I said, I’ve been leaving you be. Hoping you’d come to me when you knew. Only just now, you were talking about Tristan, and I can’t have that. I’m not a perfect man or wolf. I’m probably the least … good … out of all of my brothers, and I cannot handle hearing you express interest in Tristan. Not that kind of interest.”
She reached out and touched his arm, rubbing her hand along the side of the softness of his shirt. “Do you think I could get dressed? I mean, you are. I’d kind of like to be that way too. The kind of conversation we’re having deserves equal footing.”
His eyes got wide. “I’m rather torn on that question. I like you naked. I more than like you that way. I don’t want you to cover up. Yet I can appreciate your situation. My wolf says I’m being dense. Please, let’s get you some clothes. There’s a dressing box over there.”
He took her hand in his and they walked silently to the hidden clothes box.
I’m mated to Gabriel?
He’s pretty cute, isn’t he? Her wolf strutted.
Cute wouldn’t be the word she’d use. Striking, intoxicating, intimidating … male.
She grabbed the clothes from the box. The gray generic sweatpants and T-shirt were the same in every hidden box. They were huge on her as she fell into the smaller half of wolf shifters. The same clothes that would fit Gabriel well hung loosely on her five foot eight frame. Once she was dressed, she looked up at him.
He stood back a bit, looking at her. “Just tell me that you aren’t in love with my brother.”
“I’m not in love with your brother.”
He scratched his head. “Then why were you trying to get his attention?”
“Well, I wanted someone’s attention. I’m young. I had no idea until just now that we were … mates. Tristan is kind. And also because you make me nervous. You’re very … scary.”
She didn’t anticipate his laugh. In fact, in her fifty years of life, she’d never heard him do so before. Not in pack meetings or social events. Gabriel Kane remained his father’s stoic right-hand man at all times. The constant silhouette, Gabriel on the right, Kendrick in the middle, and Cullen on his left. The strength that kept their pack together kept them strong and aligned. Or so she had heard a million times.
“You think you’re scared of me?” He sniffed the air and grinned. With a swagger in his step she hadn’t seen earlier he moved toward her. “You’re not afraid of me. You never have been. Trust me, I’ve been observing you for years. I, by contrast, am terrified of you.”
“What?” She laughed, covering her mouth to stop the sound from echoing through the woods. Someone might come to find out what she laughed so loudly about. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s true.” He took a strand of her hair and placed it behind her ear. “You’re a tough lady.”
He had to be making fun of her. “There is nothing even remotely nerve-racking about me.”
Gabriel’s dark eyes bore into hers, no hint of amusement radiating in his gaze. “You’re an Alpha female and you know it. Right off the bat, half the men of this pack fall to their knees whenever you walk by.”
“I never talk about that. I know a lot of Alphas love to have that discussion, but I’ve never really cared if someone happened to be dominant or not.” A fact that drove some of her friends crazy. Alphas loved to be Alpha.
“I’m aware. You move with class and determination. In a fight, you could take on just about any wolf that went for you. Everyone loves you even though your family routinely drives my father crazy, opposing him whenever he steps out of line. There’s even talk that your brother could challenge for Alpha when my father is finished. His mate certainly wants that.”
Her heart sped up. “We didn’t know the Kanes knew that.”
“With very few exceptions, we know everything, sweet lady. Just like I know we belong to each other. So tell me, do I have to kill my brother Tristan? Or will you never look at him again?”
He leaned close as he spoke. His warm breath caressed her face and she shuddered. Gabriel had spoken the truth. She’d never been afraid of him, not even when everyone told her she should be. “You don’t scare me, but you do make me nervous.”
“I make you hot.” He ran a finger down the side of her cheek. “You still haven’t answered me. Does Tristan need to die?”
She shook her head. “Please don’t kill your brother.” She leaned forward until their mouths almost touched. “I’m your mate. I know it now. I don’t know why I didn’t earlier.”
“Everything in its proper time. Today’s a good day to fulfill destiny.”
His mouth fused to hers and her knees buckled. Gabriel grabbed her arms, holding her up. Carrie didn’t know if the earth actually shifted beneath her feet, but it certainly felt like it did.
* * *
Something tickled Carrie’s nose. She sneezed and opened her eyes. Gabriel sat next to her holding a rose against her face.
Her cheeks immediately heated. Had he been watching her sleep? Did she snore? “Were you tickling me with that flower?”
He nodded, once again rubbing her with the petals, this time over her chest. She took the rose from his hand. “What are you doing here?”
“I missed you.” He breathed out his words on a sigh.
“You saw me.” She looked up at the sun streaming through her window. “Two hours ago. We were up all night together. You have to let me rest, or I’m going to look like hell for you.”
He looks so cute. Her wolf crooned.
“I know.” He stood. “And I’m not exactly proud of needing to see you this much, but I do.”
“It’s not like I don’t think about you too.” Should she tell him? “I could hardly go to sleep for thinking of you.”
He raised a dark eyebrow. “Really? Tell me more about this trouble sleeping.”
She reached out to stroke his face. He had a small amount of stubble on his chin and she loved how it felt against her hand. “I guess I was thinking about this, about what a strange miracle it is that I can touch you whenever I want to.”
“You think it’s a miracle?” He tugged her up against him. “I’ve waited for you so long. Spent an infinite amount of time thinking of you, imagining you, wishing I could be with you when you wake up in the morning.”
“Gabriel Kane.” His words made her insides tighten up and a warmth pooled between her thighs. “You make me want to break pack tradition and let you into my bed right now.”
“Would you?” His eyebrows rose so high she thought they might fly right off his face. “Because you know no one has to know. It can be just between the two of us.”
He kissed her and she moaned against his mouth. From their first kiss to every stolen one after the heat between them had expanded exponentially. She couldn’t get enough of him and doubted she ever would. Her body ached for completion that only Gabe could give her.
“Easy, baby.” He stroked her breast through her shirt. “I’ve got you and I want it too.”
It would be so easy to tell him yes, to lie down with him and do what her body begged her to do.
She swallowed. “We can’t. Generations of our people have done it the way we will. It’s important. It’s tradition.”
He sighed loudly before sitting back and taking his hands from her body. She immediately missed his warmth. “If you think there aren’t some of our ancestors—hell, some of the people living around us right now—who didn’t have their mating before their ceremony, then you are really adorably naive.” He scooted to her left. “But we will wait because you want to.” Pulling her against his chest, he kissed the top of her head. “Go back to sleep. I want to hold you while you do.”
“If my father catches you here, Gabriel, you’ll be killed before we ever can.” Some of the fathers were old-fashioned, but not Carrie’s. He only had old-fashioned ideas.
“Your dad will never catch me. I’m fast. I’ll go out the window. Did you forget who you’re mating?”
She snuggled against him. “I’m never going to be able to sleep now. You’ve gotten me all worked up.”
“Sleep, sweet lady. Listen to my heart. It beats only for you.”
Carrie did as he asked, concentrating on the way his heart sounded. Eventually she drifted to sleep with the thought that she’d truly been honored by the gods to spend eternity with the best shifter she’d ever known. He smelled like the woods. Nothing could ever be better.
* * *
Gabriel couldn’t believe he’d finally gotten to his mating ceremony. The weeks of planning, of knowing Carrie wanted him above all others, that she agreed they should be together for eternity, had filled him up in places that had been cold for so long.
“Are you doing okay, son?”
He turned his gaze on his father. At some point while Gabriel had been distracted, his father, the Alpha, must have donned the traditional mating ritual attire. In his hundred-some-odd years of life—he’d stopped counting when he’d reached one hundred; it seemed futile after that—he’d watched his father bring together so many couples.
Somehow he’d never really believed he would be among them.
“I’m fine, my Alpha. Thank you for your inquiry.”
Other wolves got to pal around with their dads, to joke in preparation for the event. Not Gabe. No one joked with Kendrick. Gabriel would stand in front of the pack and swear his unending devotion to Carrie. Then they’d go off and be together for the first time. His groin leaped at the thought. The last weeks of anticipation had been horrific. Years of wanting her from afar had been nothing in comparison to knowing it would actually happen … and soon.
“You are the first of my boys to be gifted with a mate. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“No, sir.” He turned his full attention to Kendrick. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Always so dense.” The Alpha shook his head. “Thank the gods you’re as talented a soldier as you are.”
His words burned Gabe’s soul, pushing away the sweet anticipation he’d had since he’d risen earlier in the day. His father always did that, forever reminding him how stupid he was in comparison to his brothers. How seemingly worthless in all but battle.
Don’t let it get to you. His wolf hushed his fury. Today isn’t about him.
“If you want me to know what it means, sir, you’re going to have to tell me.” His words didn’t express his anger. Years ago, he’d learned how to hide it, how to make his face a mask of nothingness. No one could hurt him on the outside and what went on beneath the surface of his walls was no one else’s business.
Except Carrie’s. His wolf reminded him.
Except her. In about twenty minutes from now. “It means the gods think you’re the best.” Gabriel highly doubted that.
His father continued. “It means you truly were born to be my heir.”
“Michael’s your heir, the next Alpha.” Had Kendrick lost his ability to count? Michael, the firstborn, would be presumptive heir to Westervelt. And if not Michael, it would not be Gabe. He didn’t want to be Alpha any more than he wanted to drown in the lake surrounding Westervelt Island. Tristan would be a fantastic Alpha, if he could get his head out of his books to acknowledge it. Besides, none of them would challenge Michael.
“He’s a fool.” His father bent over close to his ear. “And you know it.”
Come. Go get mated. Get out of here. Something has gone wrong with our Alpha. I don’t even want to lower my eyes. He smells wrong.
Gabriel moved away from his father to head out into the clearing. He’d had enough of that kind of talk. Lately, Kendrick only wanted to discuss succession. Why bother talking about it when it had been decided by birth?
He shook his head. Kendrick’s smell followed him and he stopped moving. If the Alpha wanted to follow him, then he had to stop and speak with him.
“Good luck tonight.”
“Things have to change. You realize that, don’t you? We can’t stay like this forever.” “Sir?” Gabriel didn’t know where this conversation had come from.
His father spoke off into the distance. Gabriel might be the person Kendrick technically spoke with, but the way he looked out in the early night air told him anyone would do.
“I made a decision a very long time ago to do what had to be done to keep this pack strong. I have to do it again. She’s right.”
“I’m not sure what…”
Kendrick’s eyes turned back on him. “Never mind, son. Enjoy your mating ceremony. We only get one, you know. One. For all of eternity.”
His wolf huffed. When you come back from your mating time with Carrie in a few weeks, I think you should talk to Michael. Talk to Tristan. Talk to anyone about what happened here.
He swallowed, his mouth dry. To do so would be treason. We don’t talk about the Alpha behind his back.
Even when you think the Alpha may have lost his mind?
All thoughts of his father’s mental state were pushed aside as Carrie walked into the clearing. She wore a light lavender dress, the same one her mother had worn fifty years earlier. He’d watched her mother wed and never dreamed he’d see his own bride wearing the same clothes. On Carrie they were ethereal. He took a deep breath. It was the nature of his life to watch generations go by with no change in his own life and then suddenly be overwhelmed by how fast everything moved.
She walked toward him. He loved the way the air shifted around her when she moved. Birds singing their last songs for the night ceased to make a sound when she passed. Carrie didn’t even know these things happened in her presence.
Watching her for so long had given him so much knowledge about her, things he thought she didn’t even realize about herself. She twisted her hair when she tried to work out a problem. No one would ever be a more loyal friend than Carrie. Her fighting skills left something to be desired when she tried it on two legs. Four legs? She radiated strength and ability. Her wolf could handle anything thrown at her.
Carrie took his hand. “Woolgathering again?”
“Maybe.” He sighed. “Nothing overly important. I’m not solving the world’s ills tonight.”
She scrunched her nose and he wanted to bend over and kiss it. The pack had started forming around them so he resisted the urge. There would be time for kissing—and lots of it—later.
“Tonight is our mating. You can contemplate deep problems some other time.” She shrugged. “Unless, you know, it requires your attention this instant?” “No. It’s probably nothing.” Liar.
He ignored his wolf. “Let’s go be mated.”
Her grin spoke volumes. The woman wanted this as much as he did.