One Step Ahead
Rescuing a lost little girl in a red coat wandering a cold, Irish beach plunges bond mates Stanzie Newcastle and Liam Murphy deep into the dark heart of the Pack’s Great Council.
Chessa’s ability to dream the future is a commodity every Great Councilor covets. Preventing her psychic enslavement to one who would use her abilities to obtain personal power becomes Stanzie’s newest task as Advisor to Councilor Jason Allerton. Only nothing is ever easy—the little girl is not the only Dreamer in the Pack. Stanzie’s pregnant cousin, Faith, also possesses this valuable talent. An unlikely alliance seems the only way to keep both Dreamers safe and out of the clutches of ruthless Councilor Celine Ducharme. With her family threatened and everything at stake for the Great Pack’s future, can Stanzie trust her allies to guide them through the treacherous labyrinth of Pack politics?
“I should have known it wasn’t just a random dream, that it meant something momentous. Her dreams were like that. Once she was bonded to Ducharme, her dreams lost that haphazard quality. They all meant something. And they were tied to Ducharme’s fortunes.” His mouth twisted.
My heart hurt for him. I waited for him to tell me what he’d originally wanted to tell me. This room had shocked Kurt, but I knew he would get back on track soon. He was a fighter and focused.
“Before Layla killed herself, we shifted one last time together.” Kurt sat on the edge of his cot, running his hand across the blue-and-white comforter, his expression trapped somewhere between awe and desolation.
“We left Chessa with Minerva, Layla’s mother, and went home to our little house on the edge of Lake Comet. It was summer, and the oak tree in the back yard was full of birds. A cicada was singing as we stripped off our clothes and shifted by the dock. She could feel one of her irrational periods coming on. She’d get this ringing in her ears. It would be soft at first, buzzing in and out, but eventually drowning out everything, and she’d slip into this catatonic state, just listening to the buzz.
She said the cicada sounded a lot like what she heard inside her head. Every time I hear them now, I think of her face, slack and expressionless, and her sitting in a dark corner, listening to that song, following it deeper and deeper into the twisted labyrinth of her mind. She knew one day she’d be stuck there. She would never find her way out, and she didn’t want me to feel chained to her side. She didn’t think I’d leave her and take Chessa to safety if I knew she was sitting somewhere, locked inside her own head, and she was right. I wouldn’t have.
“You know there are some of us in the Great Pack, who never go outside our bonds. There’s no one for us but our bond mate. I was like that with her, and Murphy’s like that with you, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” I whispered. “And his bond mate before me.”
“Just like I’d be if I ever—” Kurt bit off the end of his sentence, rage twisting his handsome features.
“You miss your wolf, don’t you?” I blurted before I could call the words back. This whole conversation was roundabout, but it all came to down to his wolf. Mark’s assumption that Kurt was going to form a triad with Murphy and me had set Kurt’s mind spinning.
“We ran for three hours that afternoon.” Kurt didn’t directly acknowledge me, but I saw the raw longing in his expression. “Layla’s wolf led the way. She always did. My wolf was content to follow her. He would have followed her anywhere. He didn’t know he was going to lose her—that she was going to a place he couldn’t. We leaped into the water, sending glittering sheets of it flying up toward the blue sky, then breaking apart into shiny droplets that splashed back down into the lake. We left muddy paw prints on the shore, and we ran until my wolf couldn’t breathe and flopped into the grass, panting. Her wolf stopped because mine did, but I often wonder how much longer we could have gone on if my wolf hadn’t run out of breath.
“What if we’d stayed wolf? Would the madness have taken over in that form? It was something we hadn’t considered. Something I thought of only after it was too late. Could we have taken Chessa into the forest with us, raised her as a feral, wild child?” Kurt bowed his head.
I sat beside him on the cot, shoulder brushing his. I wanted to hug him, but I didn’t know if he’d let me.
Kurt leaned into me for a moment, but before he spoke again, he sat straight so we wouldn’t touch. “Before we shifted, we put the gun in the boat. Under a seat cushion. It was a small boat, seated four. I was always screwing around fixing the outboard engine.
“We didn’t even bother to dress. I got onboard first and held out my hand to her. She smiled at me and said, “Kurt, are you going to let me fall in again?’” He gave a short, hopeless bark of laughter. “She never let me live that one time down. The lake was choppy that day, and the boat dipped at just the wrong moment so I lost my grip on her hand. Cold too. Autumn. She sputtered at me for an hour after I fished her out and wrapped a blanket around her. Then I asked her to bond with me and she forgot to be mad.”
I smiled, even though I wanted more to cry. From the sounds of her, I would have liked Layla.
“But that day, when the gun was under the cushion, the lake was calm and flat as glass. She took her seat in the bow and I started the engine. For once the damn thing started first time. I drove us into the middle of the lake, so she could look back at our little house and screened-in porch in back. I moved to sit beside her and took her left hand, while she held the gun to her head with her right one.
“‘Keep Chessa safe, Kurt,’ she said. ‘I love you both.’ Then she pulled the trigger.”
Tears spurted down my cheeks. I tried to choke them back, but it was no use. Kurt sat ramrod stiff beside me staring at the window. “That’s going to be your cousin’s fate if I don’t take my daughter and leave. Now. Before Angelique gets here.” Kurt had kept phenomenal control of himself as he told Layla’s story, but he’d had years to come to grips with it. However, I was a mess and pressed my palms to my eyes, bent over, weeping.
“At the dinner table, for one moment I pictured it, Stanzie. Me and you, and that idiot, Murphy.” He laughed a little. “Bond mates. Chessa safe. You could be her mother. Then I looked at that poor pregnant Alpha cousin of yours and thought of Layla. I can’t do it. Sometimes I think we should have brought Chessa on that boat with us and ended it together. My wolf could have gone with Layla’s, and Chessa would never have had to run.”
“You really think you could have put a bullet through your own daughter’s head?” Scott’s voice startled me, and I stared as he walked into the room. How long had he been lurking in the stairwell, eavesdropping on us? Intent on the conversation, I hadn’t even heard him come back inside. Had Kurt?”
I stole a look at his profile. He was still staring at the window across the room and not me or Scott. He hadn’t jerked a muscle at Scott’s voice, so I wondered if he had heard Scott and deliberately kept talking.
“No,” Kurt answered. “I took the only option I had.” He swiveled his head in Scott’s direction. Scott smelled like snow and his cheeks were flushed with cold. He still had on his parka, but no boots. His socks were gray. “Just like you need to take your best option and make Faith bond with Allerton. Tell me to take Chessa and get the hell out of your territory.”
“I can’t do that,” Scott said. “She’s just a little girl. She was helping the grandmothers wash the dishes when I came in. Chattering away like a little magpie. She’s starved for companionship. She needs a pack. You want to take that away from her? Make her go back out into the cold?”
“She has me for companionship.” Kurt’s jaw tightened.
“It’s not enough anymore, and you know that. She’s going to be a teen in a few years and what are you going to do then? You miss your wolf; she’ll ache to meet hers.” Scott’s fists were clenched by his side. “I’ve watched someone ache to meet his wolf. I can’t do that to somebody else.”
“You’re being a fool, Alpha. Chessa’s not your pack. You don’t have any obligation to protect her.” Kurt’s voice was flat and dangerous.
“You brought her here. She’s under my protection whether you like it or not.”
“Bullshit. She’s my daughter. Your pack means nothing to me or to her.”
“Well, we think you matter to us.” Scott rested his forehead against the doorjamb. “There has got to be a way out of this for both Chessa and Faith.”
“No,” said Kurt. “If you don’t let us go now, Chessa bonds with Allerton. Faith gets Celine Ducharme. And you get to raise your children alone.”
“Goddamn it,” Scott swore. “Stanzie, you and I make good partners. Between us we can figure this shit out, right?”
“I’m scared, Scott,” I said. “You don’t know Celine Ducharme. I do. I hate that woman. She’s relentless. I don’t want Chessa to leave, but I don’t know what the hell to do.”
“Not yet.” Scott smiled at me, but terror lurked in his gray eyes. “We’ll do this, partner. Between us we’ll save them both. I swear. As Alpha of Mayflower, I vow to do this thing.”
Kurt pressed his lips tightly together at the traditional words. An Alpha never vowed lightly.
“So be it,” he said. “I’ll help if I can. All I’m good at anymore is running away, but I can fight when cornered. I’m cracked, but I’m not broken.”
“I think you’re one of the strongest bastards I’ve ever met,” Scott said grimly. “So we’re a team. And we’re going to win.”