Bennett shook his head. “No. You can’t do that.”
Elation filled Jericho. ’Bout fvcking time he had Bennett Warren right where he wanted him. Squirming like a worm on a hook. Justice was a dish best served cold, and all that bullsh!t.
“Yes, I can,” he said. “You know pack law. Ritual combat. Wolf to wolf.”
The tension in the room was palpable. He could practically taste it. He turned his head slightly to look at Payton Jones, the woman who had haunted his dreams for longer than he cared to admit. He had known back then she was his destined mate, but she was also a teenager, so he couldn’t do much about it except wait for her to grow up. And holy hell, had she.
When she had entered the lodge, he had zeroed in on her scent. He’d been battling a state of semi-arousal from the soft, floral lushness of her skin.
She had been another thing Bennett had stolen. All the years they could’ve made a life together. Ruled the pack. Had children together. Now that he was back, he was determined to wed and bed her. She was his, and nothing was going to stop him from claiming her. His gaze found hers, and for a moment, everything around them faded.
Like they were the only two people left in the world. His wolf surged forward, and it took all his strength to hold him back. He had priorities, and right now he had to focus on tearing Bennett to pieces because that was exactly what he intended to do.
Dragging his gaze from her, he turned back to face Bennett. “Name the time and place.”
Bennett desperately looked around. Jericho could smell his fear.
Apparently, so could everyone else.
“Is this true, Bennett?” Payton’s dad asked. “Did you cheat your way to being alpha?”
“What? No! Absolutely preposterous.”
“You’re scared,” Mitch accused. “It’s scenting the air. If you didn’t cheat, then accept the ritual combat.”
“No, I don’t have to! This pack is mine!”
Jericho shook his head. “This pack is not yours. And if you won’t accept my challenge, I will kill you right here and now.” He held up his right hand let his wolf come through enough to elongate the claws. Razor sharp, they could tear through Bennett’s flesh like tissue paper.
Bennett looked around one more time, and then turned and ran. Jericho watched him, knowing he didn’t have to give chase because by turning coward, Bennett had effectively lost the mantle of Alpha. The omega wolves looked at one another before hurrying after their master.
A cheer went up. People rushed forward to congratulate him. Jericho knew this wasn’t the end of the matter because the ritual combat challenge wasn’t settled until blood was spilled. Yet right then, he let the as*sh0le flee to accept the numerous handshakes, well wishes, and pledges of fealty. He looked once more for Payton, but she had disappeared. His wolf wanted to follow. So did he, for that matter.
Soon, he promised himself. Very fvcking soon.
“Payton!” her mother called out. “Payton, stop!”
She halted and waited for Nancy to catch up, although it was the last thing she wanted to do. She wasn’t stupid. She had an inkling what her mom wished to say because she knew without a shadow of a doubt that Jericho would win the ritual combat. He had always been destined to be alpha. Payton braced herself as her mother came to a halt next to her.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” she said. “I expect nothing.”
Her mother sighed. “He’s going to be the alpha.”
“He’s going to need a strong mate. A … whole mate.”
Even though she knew it had been coming, the words still stung.
“I know,” Payton said again.
“The mating bond can be strong, but it can be broken,” her mother said.
“I know!” Payton yelled and turned to confront her mom. “Jesus Christ, Mom, I know all this! I get that I’m defective, okay? I know he’s going to need a woman who can shift. I know I’m a big disappointment to you. Just … leave it alone. I know all my shortcomings and how I’m a very unsuitable mate for an alpha.”
Her mother frowned as they stared at one another. “When you were younger, I was happy you knew who your mate was, Payton. Now I’m only trying to keep you from being hurt.”
“Sure, Mom. If you tell yourself that often enough, you might actually believe it.” She blew on her bangs, trying to get them out of her eyes. “Listen, give me the keys. You and Dad can catch a ride home with Henry.” She held out her hand and waited.
Her mother hesitated for a moment before reaching into her pocket and taking out her set of keys. “We can talk later.”
“Why?” Payton asked. “Nothing’s changed. Just because he’s my mate doesn’t mean I’m his.”
She took the keys and headed toward her father’s car. One thing was certain, there was no way she could remain in Sheridan and watch Jericho chose a very suitable wife. They’d have amazing kids who could shift and wouldn’t be a gigantic embarrassment.
Seemed like she’d run out of time.