Jericho watched the pack gather once more in the meeting room at the lodge. Payton stood in the back again, near the door.
He wished she sat next to him, but he understood her unease. Knew it had to be hard to break the psychological bullsh!t her parents had subjected her to simply because they were ashamed of what they perceived as a flaw.
He was going to have a heart-to-heart with Mr. and Mrs. Jones very soon.
As if he conjured them, Marcus and Nancy Jones entered. They shared a brief look with Payton before moving on to find a seat. The rest of the pack filed in. Even Esmeralda had closed down the diner to attend. Many waved at him or gave a smile.
The mood was vastly different from the day before when he had confronted Bennett. Once everyone was seated, he stood. A hush fell through the room.
“I know you were just here,” he started. “And I thank you for making the trek back to the lodge.”
“I hope you keep the meetings,” Doris said. “Never liked boarding this place up.”
Jericho smiled. “Yes, and I plan to put the lodge’s title under the municipality of Sheridan. One person shouldn’t have the power to be able to sell it from under the pack. This way, it’ll be protected no matter who is alpha.”
Excitement bubbled through the room as people began murmuring amongst themselves.
“Another thing I must bring to your attention is the fact that Bennett Warren seems to have skipped town,” Jericho said. “Pack law is pretty definitive that the title of Alpha must be won through ritual combat if the alpha is challenged.”
“I think it’s very apparent Bennett was a liar and a cheat,” someone else said.
“I’m not going to disagree with you, but as pack, we must all agree with what happens from here.”
“You mean, do we agree to ignore that Bennett isn’t going to fight you?” Marcus Jones asked.
“Yes,” Jericho replied.
“I have no problem forgetting all about Bennett,” Esmeralda said.
Several people cried out, “Here, here.”
“Then we should create bylaws,” Jericho said. “It’s been pointed out to me that this pack should be more of a democratic society than one person deciding all the laws.”
“But packs have a hierarchy,” Marcus said. “Are you suggesting we ignore that?”
“Not at all, but I’d like to have more input from all of you when it comes to certain issues.”
He smiled at the group and glanced toward Payton. She gave him a thumbs-up. He had a sneaking suspicion that she wasn’t about to like his next move.
“Now, on a personal note, I want to say that I have claimed my mate,” he said, maintaining eye contact with Payton. Her eyes widened, and he detected a hint of panic.
“Better be Payton,” Esmeralda said loudly.
People snickered. Marcus and Nancy looked at one another. Jericho held up his hands to simmer everyone down.
“Yes, it’s Payton,” he said. “She seems to be under the impression that she’s not good enough to be mated to the Alpha.
But I want to be absolutely clear that in the years I’ve been gone, my goal had always been to take back this pack and to claim my mate. If anyone has a problem with that, speak now. And then go fvck off.”
He stared at Marcus and Nancy. They seemed to understand his underlying message and looked down, unable to maintain his gaze. Because they were Payton’s parents, he’d let them remain in the pack, but he was determined to keep them at arm’s length.
The meeting broke up, and once more, he was inundated with people coming forward to congratulate him. Payton had once again disappeared from the back of the room, but he didn’t worry.
He knew she’d linger outside. They were going to her apartment to pack up her belongings to move into his home. He’d worn her down until she agreed. Once he set his mind to something, he refused to take no for an answer.
Payton watched the children play in the flower beds behind the lodge. They were too young to attend meetings.
A few teenagers who were supposed to be watching the kids were instead on their phones, but Payton didn’t correct them. She still felt it wasn’t her place. Instead, she sat on a step and kept an eye on the group.
She couldn’t believe Jericho had made such a bold announcement to the entire pack. He had even given her parents a glower. Secretly, she was thrilled that he’d defended her. She knew it would take time to move past her hang-ups, but she was determined to work on that.
Suddenly, an uneasy feeling settled over her. Like she was being watched. Her wolf turned on her scenting, and Payton got up to patrol the perimeter. She knew she wasn’t alone when the teenagers jumped to their feet.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught some movement from the eastern edge of the woods, and she turned. Bennett’s omegas advanced from the outskirts, striding with purpose. A chill raced over her.
“Round up the children,” she ordered, taking charge. She would defend her pack to the death. “Get some help.”
Two kids ran toward the back entrance while the others hurried to gather up the smaller children. Payton moved to intercept the omegas, and that was when she noticed they weren’t just coming from the east.
They were actually surrounding them, and she could smell the malice dripping from them. For a moment, panic filled her. How was she going to protect them all? Surely the adults would come tearing out of the lodge at any moment to help.
“The doors are locked!”
Payton looked up at the large mansion, where the teenagers were trying to open the door. They pounded on the thick wooden slats.
“Go around the front!” she yelled back.
They raced to follow her order. Payton swung her attention back to the omegas. She couldn’t allow them to hurt the young cubs. All her fear and panic melted away. She would defend them with her life.
“Kids, come here!” she shouted.
There were eight children total, and they rushed to gather behind her. Payton planted her feet and waited. Her wolf surged forward, not liking the taste of danger. It was the first time her wolf ever acted that way.
Usually, it just stayed dormant, content to let her handle things. No matter how much she had tried to summon it, her wolf just wouldn’t budge. But now … it grew restless. It bubbled under the surface.
Just as she feared, the omegas charged, changing as they ran forward. The wolves growled and snapped, and Payton knew she was out of time. Their teeth and claws would tear them all apart.
“Run!” she yelled to the children. “Run to the lodge!”
The kids did as she commanded. She was right behind them, but it was a lost cause. There was no way they could outrun them. Helpless, hopeless, she only had one weapon, and that was her wolf.
Payton begged with it. Pleaded with it. If not for herself, then maybe for the children.
Maybe she could buy them enough time to make it to safety and for the parents to arrive.
A heat rose up inside her, and her wolf growled at her to stop. So, she did just that. Payton turned, ready to face whatever the omegas would do.
Then this tremendous force pushed itself from her body, exploding outward, and her wolf sprang forward. In stunned disbelief, a gigantic wolf clawed the ground, roaring out a thunderous howl.
The omegas came to a screeching halt, cowering in fear. Her wolf, however, was not corporeal. It was translucent, radiating with a bright glow. The orange fur waved with an invisible wind.
Payton had no idea what had just happened, or what she did, but she wasn’t scared because she knew this was her wolf.
Using her newfound ferocity, Payton bared her teeth, and her wolf followed suit, howling fiercely. The omegas whimpered and turned tail, disappearing into the forest. With the danger gone, her wolf retreated back into herself, knocking Payton backward.
“Payton!” Jericho cried.
She didn’t even have the strength to move. Voices reached her, and a moment later, Jericho was there.
She slid an arm around his neck as he picked her up, then he walked back to the lodge where the rest of the pack stood and waited. The children were safe in their parents’ arms.
“What was that?” he asked.
Payton blinked. “You saw it too?”
“We all saw it.”
Finally, she looked around and saw amazement as well as curiosity on everyone’s faces.
“I … I don’t know,” she admitted. “I think it was my wolf.”
“Let me through,” Esmeralda said. The front of the crowd parted to let the elderly lady through. “I never thought I’d see one, and here you’ve been all along, working for me.”
Jericho set her down on her feet, although he put his arm around her shoulders to make sure she was steady.
“See what?” Payton asked.
“Your wolf, my dear. It’s an astral wolf.”
Jericho frowned. “A what?”
“Legend is when a wolf is so powerful that the human host can’t possibly contain all that strength, it will emerge in times of danger as an astral wolf.” Esmeralda smiled at Payton. “I always knew you were special.
I didn’t realize just how special you were.”
“So my wolf isn’t recessive at all?” Payton asked, still unable to comprehend what had just happened.
Esmeralda shook her head. “Perhaps all those other shifters who couldn’t shift contained an astral wolf as well, waiting to emerge at the first sign of danger.”
One mother stepped forward, her young daughter still cradled in her arms. “Thank you, Payton. I don’t know what to say or how I can thank you for saving my little girl.”
“Oh,” Payton said, shaking her head. “You don’t have to thank me. I wasn’t going to let anything happen to any of them.”
“You would’ve been killed,” Nancy said softly.
Payton looked at her mom. “I was prepared to do that, to buy the kids time to get help.”
Jericho’s arm tightened around her shoulder. She looked up at him.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. “And I’m also going to spank your as*s.”
Her mouth dropped open, and everyone laughed. After that, the entire pack came forward to thank her or embrace her.
It was awkward because this was the same pack Payton never thought she belonged to, at least not in the truest sense of the word. Her mother and father tried to move closer, but Jericho blocked them with his body.
“You told her lies,” he said, and the crowd hushed. “You told her she was worthless. That she’d never be a proper mate to an alpha.”
“We … we were just trying to protect her,” her father said.
“Protect her?” Jericho demanded. “From me?”
Jericho shook his head. “That wasn’t your place.”
Payton laid a hand on his chest. “Stop.”
“I won’t have anyone disrespecting you, and that includes your parents.”
“And I love you for that,” she said softly. Happiness danced in his eyes at her declaration. “But they are my parents, and they didn’t know. No one knew.”
“They shouldn’t have said all those things to you.” He looked at her parents. “Because of who you are, I’ll let you stay in this pack. But you will watch what you say to her.”
Her parents bowed their heads. At some point, Payton needed to forgive them and put their words behind her, but right now she had too much on her mind.
“Now, we have to find those omegas,” Jericho said loudly. “It’s time to finish Bennett.”