Payton woke up early the next morning. After her routine ablutions, she fixed her breakfast and made a pot of coffee. Once she’d poured the black liquid into a large thermos, she headed out the door and discovered her parents walking to their car.
“I’m going with you,” she said.
Her parents looked at one another, and Payton knew what they were going to say before they actually said anything.
“Well,” her father mumbled. “It’s for pack members—”
“I am pack,” Payton stressed. Her insides went cold at her parents’ obvious discomfort of having to include her. “Whether you like it or not.”
Her mother, Nancy, sighed. “Payton—”
Ignoring her, Payton marched to the car and slid into the backseat. She stared straight ahead. Even when they joined her and began the drive into the deep woods, where the pack lodge was located, no one said a word. Payton worked hard at pushing down her pain and anger at being dismissed once more.
Half an hour later, they pulled up in front of the large two-story, mountain-style design home that managed to combine handcrafted log walls with timber frame trusses. With over eight thousand square feet, the lodge sat on a high hill with sweeping vistas down into the valley. Slate roofing and copper-paneled turrets gave the stone exterior a castle-like feel. As a child, Payton remembered coming to the lodge and running around outside. She often chased after Jericho and his friends, wanting to be with him. He’d always escape from her obvious hero-worship that she came to understand, later in life, was the mating bond settling into place. She might not be able to shift, but she still had the instinct.
They had to park farther back since the parking lot was completely full. Payton suspected every member of the pack had shown up. She followed her parents into the house, through a throng of people, and took up a spot in the back of the meeting room, leaning against the wall near the door. The alpha, Bennett Warren, sat in the front next to his six omegas. Because of their low rankings in the pack, Bennett had turned them into his own personal enforcers. They liked to go around the town and exert scare tactics, adding pressure to anyone who disagreed with Bennett. Their low omega status didn’t change, but baseball bats had a way of making everyone wary.
“Settle down!” Bennett shouted.
People quieted and took their seat.
“Now, tell me what in tarnation was this meeting called for?”
Payton’s father stood up and cleared his throat. “We want clarification on why you sold the lodge.”
“I sold the lodge because this pack doesn’t need this old building.”
An unsettled murmur rumbled through the crowd.
Their neighbor, Henry, stood up. “This lodge belongs to the pack—”
“Actually, this lodge belongs to me,” Bennett injected. He gave a sweeping glance around the room. “The title transferred to me when I became the new alpha.”
“Yes, but it’s still pack property!”
“Calm down, Henry,” her father said. “Bennett, you’re right that the title is … was … in your name, but the unwritten rule is that it’s always belonged to the community. We just want to know why.”
“If you must know, this town is in trouble,” Bennett said. He swept a pointed finger at the people in front of him. “All of you have run this town into the ground. We can’t sustain ourselves, so I sold the lodge in hopes of saving something of it.”
“What’re you talking about?” Henry demanded. “Our businesses are doing great after the season.”
Bennett gave a huge sigh and shook his head mournfully. “Regretfully, I have some bad news. There’s no good way to say this but to spit it out. Now, I’ve tried to shield all of you from a very painful fact … but the bank is going to foreclose on a lot of properties because taxes weren’t paid. Now, it didn’t matter how much you made this season. My real reason to sell this lodge was to buy up your properties—”
A storm erupted once more. People jumped to their feet, all asking questions at the same time. What did he mean? How did this happen? The raised voices all blended, but Payton didn’t blame the panic and confusion. She suddenly felt sick to her stomach. It seemed like the pack was falling apart.
“Calm down!” her father yelled.
Slowly, everyone stopped talking and turned to look at him. “Bennett, none of this makes sense. You’re the alpha. How did you let this happen without informing us?”
Bennett puffed out his chest. “I’ve done the best I could with your struggling businesses.”
“What struggle?” someone demanded. “We gave you the pack dues to take care of stuff like property taxes. We trusted you!”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“No one is calling you anything, Bennett,” her father said. “How much more do we owe to save our properties? Where will the money be distributed?”
“What do you mean?” Bennett asked.
Her father looked taken aback. “If you sold the lodge to save the town, are you reimbursing the bank? I mean, who is going to benefit from this sale?”
“Well, me,” Bennett said. “I used my own money to try to save all of you, but it wasn’t enough. Your properties were sold. So, I’ll get reimbursed, of course.”
Payton could no longer see the alpha through the angry crowd. Not that she cared because he reminded her of a slimy snake oil salesman. Then suddenly, an awareness came over her. A tingling sensation raced down her spine as the hair on her arm stood up. Her heart sped up, thumping heavily in her chest. Her nipples beaded.
Confused, she glanced around, not sure what she was searching for. Then a subtle movement in the doorway had her turning her head, and that was when she saw him standing in the shadows. She blinked, wondering if her mind was playing a trick on her. After all, she’d been thinking of him a lot that day. Their gazes locked, and Payton’s air left her lungs in a whoosh as shock filled her.
He was so different from the last time she’d seen him. Back then, he had oozed self-confidence, but he had still been a young man. Now, however, he was all power. Muscles bulged under his black t-shirt. Tattoos decorated both arms. Silver threaded through his midnight hair despite the fact he wasn’t yet forty. Stubble dusted his square jaw. What hadn’t changed was the ferocity in his dark eyes drawing her in. Her mouth dropped open as his name danced across the tip of her tongue, but he raised one finger over his mouth, indicating he wanted her to stay silent.
Shaken, she gave a slight nod and watched as he turned his attention back to Bennett. She couldn’t stop the emotions bubbling forth. Arousal. Disbelief. Was he real? She blinked, but Jericho still stood there, staring at the assembly.
Several people also seemed to notice the shift in energy and began to look around, looking as confused as she felt. Even Bennett stopped talking. Being Alpha wasn’t just about strength, it was a power that vibrated through the air. It had always confused Payton how Bennett had managed to defeat both Branson and Jericho, who were true alphas.
Then he stepped from the shadows and heads turned. A hush fell over the crowd.
“Ten years ago, you challenged my father for the title of Alpha,” Jericho said, his deep baritone rumbling through the meeting room. He walked forward, toward Bennett, with a grace that belied his masculine stature. “At the time, I couldn’t figure out how such a sniveling, weak wolf managed to kill my father. Then I challenged you, and much to my surprise, I was struck with the same mysterious weakness.”
“Jericho?” Bennett asked, a quiver wobbling his voice.
“Do you know how long it takes for wolfsbane to get out of a wolf’s system? That’s a rhetorical question because the answer is years, Bennett. Many debilitating, painful years.”
Bennett took a few steps back. “I … I’m sure I don’t k-know what you’re talking about.”
“Aconitum napellus,” Jericho said softly. “I don’t how you managed to poison me. Something I ate. Something I drank. Doesn’t really matter now. I’m here to take back what belongs to me.”
“You’ve been gone a long time,” Bennett said, although a lot of his arrogance had fled from his voice. “You went solitary.”
“I was forced into solitary,” Jericho amended. “But I used those years wisely. Took my father’s construction company and turned it into a thriving business which allowed me to buy this lodge for the pack. I also paid off those taxes you mentioned.”
An audible gasp went through the room. Payton couldn’t take her gaze off Jericho. He was beautiful and powerful, and a hint of danger shimmered under the surface.
“These are my people, Bennett,” he said, advancing even more toward the front. “My pack. And I’m taking everything back. I challenge you, Bennett, for the title of Alpha.”