Return of the Alpha Chapter 1

Payton weaved around the tables, filling cups with hot coffee. She smiled and nodded to the townsfolk of Sheridan, Colorado who had come into the diner for their evening meal. The season had just ended for tourists like the hikers mainly who loved to take in the sweeping vistas of the Rocky Mountains. They’d gone from a packed house every night to a few visitors passing through. Payton liked talking with outsiders, liked imagining a life away from the Sheridan Pack. Nothing really held her there, not even her parents.

A cacophony of conversation scattered around her. Most she drowned out, some she replied to with a smile or a non-committal response. She’d learned long ago no one really valued or wanted her opinion on things. She might have been born into a shifter family, but she wasn’t one of them. Even though she was pack, she had a rare disorder of having a recessive gene that didn’t allow her to shift. To the people of Sheridan, she was an anomaly. To her parents, a disappointment.

Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she let her mind drift. Working at the diner wasn’t going to solve world hunger, but it was her niche. She’d started at age sixteen because it got her out of the house and kept her busy. The plan had been to wait tables until she figured out what to do with her life. Only, on the cusp of thirty, she still didn’t know what to do.

“Daydreaming again?”

Payton blinked and turned to smile at her boss, Esmeralda. “Not when I’m having so much fun.”

Esmeralda rolled her eyes. “You can always become my partner, and then the accounting is all yours.”

Payton mock shivered in horror. “Math. Blah.”

With a grin, Esmeralda headed toward the tiny office in the back, leaving her to wipe the counter and bus some tables. Payton glanced at the short order cook, Wayne, who gave her a shrug. He’d been with Esmeralda even longer than she. As the evening stretched on, the dinner crowd began to thin. About an hour before closing, the bell above the door jingled. Payton glanced up as the local realtor, Mitchell Bly, entered with tie askew and sleeves rolled up.

“You okay, Mitch?” Payton asked him as he slid onto a stool at the counter. She sat a coffee mug in front of him and filled it with decaf. “You look too frazzled for caffeine.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “You won’t believe this, but I just sold the pack lodge.”

Shock robbed her momentarily of speech. Of all the things he could’ve said, this knocked the breath out of her. “What?”

“The lodge,” he said a bit louder. “It’s been sold.”

A hush fell over the room, and heads turned toward them. The lodge was an integral part of the pack. Selling it made no sense.

“What do you mean?” Payton asked, sure he had been mistaken. “Who bought it?”

“The alpha sold it.” Mitchell shook his head. “To some big-shot construction company. I have to admit, it went against everything I believe in, but … what could I do?”

“Can he do that?” Payton asked quietly, still stunned.

“Yeah.” He looked around the room, seeming to suddenly realize everyone stared at him. “The title of the lodge transfers to the new alpha when … you know. When it’s time. I thought y’all knew this.”

“But … but … that lodge belongs to the pack,” Wayne said, voicing what Payton, and probably everyone else, was thinking.

“Not that we’ve used it,” another patron muttered. “Alpha closed the doors after … well, after.”

Yes, Payton thought. After. After Bennett Warren had defeated Branson Savidge, the pack alpha, in combat ritual. After his son Jericho had failed to avenge his father, forcing him to flee out of the territory. After Bennett had turned the prosperous community into one heavily in debt.

“Is the money going to the pack?” she asked.

Mitchell shrugged. “I don’t know. Legally, he can do anything with the money ’cause technically, it’s his.”

Angry murmurs erupted through the diner. Payton understood the confusion she saw on their faces. The pack lodge had been a place where everyone came together as a community, whether it was a wedding or a party. Or where town hall meetings were conducted on bylaws and pack business. Only Bennett had closed and sealed the doors once he had been made alpha. The only laws he had enforced were ones that seemed to benefit him and his cronies, the omega wolves of the pack. Through Esmeralda, Payton had learned every business paid a pack tax, something that Bennett had insisted on but no one liked.

It hadn’t taken long for many to become disillusioned with Bennett’s leadership. He had promised the moon but never delivered. Some had even chosen to go solitary, leaving Sheridan altogether.

As people continued to spew their outrage over losing the lodge, Payton backed away. Maybe this was the final nail in the coffin. They’d all been too complacent once Bennett had assumed the alpha role. Although no one liked him, no one had the guts to do anything about him. The last person who had challenged him for alpha was Jericho, and that didn’t end well.

“We need to call a meeting.”

“In the pack lodge, before this sale is complete. We can’t let an outsider come here. The pack needs to be protected.”

“Wasn’t that why we were paying Bennett?” another demanded. “To protect us?”

“You know who never extorted us for protection money? Branson.”

Payton agreed with everything being said, but she didn’t voice aloud her support. Over the years, she’d learned to keep her mouth shut because although she was tolerated, she wasn’t fully accepted. She turned from the bitching still going on and headed into the back. Her shift was almost over anyway. Hanging up her apron, she waved at Esmeralda, who gave her an understanding nod. She clocked out, grabbed her purse, and slipped out the backdoor. As she walked home, the idea of leaving flitted once more through her mind. Right after Jericho had vanished, she’d seriously thought about packing up and trying to find him. Or heading anywhere else but Colorado. Start her life new in a city that didn’t know about her … abnormality. But she’d been far too young, as well as unable to afford it. Over the years, she’d been saving up enough money to enact her escape plan, and she figured she might have enough to live comfortably until she found her passion.

She figured Jericho was a lost cause.

Payton turned onto her street and headed toward her parents’ house, where she lived in the apartment above the garage. At least working nights prevented her from enduring time with them. She knew they loved her in their own way, but she also knew they hated the fact she wasn’t fully wolf.

Word must have traveled fast because by the time she walked up the driveway, a few cars had already beat her home. Arguments came streaming out of the open windows. She paused and listened.

“We won’t stand for this!” her dad, Marcus, screeched. “We’ll be at that pack meeting in the morning, and Bennett better have some goddamn solid answers!”

Payton sighed. Her dad was all bark and no bite. She headed toward her apartment, knowing even though she was half invisible to the pack, she’d be at the meeting to listen to everyone bitch while Bennett dismissed all their concerns. He was truly an awful alpha. At moments like this, she missed how the pack used to be under Branson’s leadership. It was never going to be the same, so why keep torturing themselves? Even years later, Jericho’s absence still left a hollowness in her heart.

Perhaps the pack lodge being sold was a sign. Perhaps now was her best time to leave the community and become a lone wolf.

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