Still reading after the beginning of Chapter Two? Find out how the chapter ends…
Chapter 2 Scene 2
Werewolves should be burned, not buried.
The words bounced around inside my skull as I hovered just inside the tree line that ringed the backside of the cemetery. I was here to tell my father goodbye and to meet my mother for the first time in over a decade. But I kept getting stuck on the incongruity of the scene before me.
I could smell shifters. Even with my half-breed nose, the distinctive aroma of fur and fangs was heavy on the air, proving that I wasn’t the only werewolf who’d been invited to this solemn occasion.
And yet, there were no flames. No praise for the fallen and howls of tribute for the dead. No ceremonial pyre to burn away our pain and warm our lupine souls.
Instead, a woman who seemed far too young to be my mother held court in front of a huge statue of an angel—an angel for crying out loud—that rose out of a ring of daylilies surrounded by perfectly manicured grass. Even from a distance, Celia was so absurdly human that I couldn’t quite imagine having spent nine months growing from egg to fetus within her womb. High heels, a black suit with tight mid-length skirt, red lipstick. She looked the part of a bereaved human wife mourning her lost husband.
But no one would have mistaken her for the mate of a shifter.
We should talk to her, my wolf murmured. Get to know her.
Unconsciously, I rubbed at the mostly healed bullet wound midway up my left arm. But the real pain came from within my chest.
Even though I knew I was lying, I told myself the ache was just heartburn. No way would I acknowledge the truncated memories of Celia that flickered through my mind.
But the recollections of my father were harder to push aside.
Harbor, the werewolf half of my parental unit, had done his level best to turn us into a real family. Even twelve years later, I still vividly recalled my father kissing away my boo-boos and trying to do the same for the pinched expression that came onto his wife’s face every time she glanced in my direction.
It hadn’t worked, though. It had never worked.
Instead, Celia exploded into regular bouts of tears and rage. A one-night stand turned into a surprise pregnancy turned into a marriage—that Celia could accept. She could also overlook her husband’s tendency to don fur as long as he did so far out of sight and never mentioned the bestial half of his personality in her presence.
But when her young daughter’s eyes turned feral every time a sparrow alighted on the family’s bird feeder…. That was too much to handle.
I wasn’t even old enough to shift for the first time when the tears and sighs gave way to screaming matches and finally to an ultimatum. Celia was leaving our clan, leaving me, leaving her mate.
For a werewolf, though, being separated from his mate was akin to driving hot spikes under his fingernails. So Harbor packed up alongside her and left me behind in his quest to make their relationship work.
Not fair, my wolf whispered. Daddy wanted to take us with him.
My inner beast had matured considerably during the last month, but she still possessed the naivety of a child. So, for her sake, I allowed one Celia-related memory to rise up and fill our joint mind. For the wolf’s sake, I replayed the final conversation I’d shared with the shifter who even now rotted in the ground forty yards away from the spot where my feet remained rooted to the earth.
“You know I love you, right?” Harbor asked as we sat together one summer evening on the stoop of our ramshackle single-wide. The landscaping was a bit shabby, dirt trails worn between residences and everything in need of a fresh coat of paint. But the pack’s territory felt warm and welcoming in a way this human cemetery never could. That night, nine-year-old me had been completely content.
“I know,” I answered cockily. I hadn’t known yet that Harbor planned to rip out my heart that very evening. So I parroted back his words easily. “I love you too, Daddy.”
My father smiled and pulled me onto his lap. But his voice was grim as he broke the bad news. “But your mother needs to be around people like her,” he started, and abruptly I wanted to be anywhere but there. My throat tightened with tears as I realized what was coming.
Still, my father wouldn’t continue until I spoke. So I forced out a single word. “Yeah,” I answered, itching to run away under the moon with a mason jar, to capture fireflies for bedroom illumination and pretend the current conversation wasn’t happening.
But I could hear my mother’s gut-wrenching sobs wending through the open window behind me. The sound alone was proof that something drastic needed to be done if we ever hoped to unify our own small corner of the pack.
Replaying the memory a dozen years in the future, I realized that my father had been painfully young then. Celia had gotten pregnant at fifteen and a half, and Harbor hadn’t possessed many additional years. Which meant the pair of them were only a little older than my current age when they’d broken all ties with their daughter.
Trying to imagine raising a kid of my own when I barely felt old enough to make my own way in the world, I felt a little more sympathy for the duo…even if the gut-wrenching pang of parting hadn’t faded one bit in the last dozen years.
Back in the past, Harbor’s lupine eyes bored into mine as he begged me to understand. “You can come with us if you want. Or you can stay here with a pack that loves you.”
See! my lupine half barked in my ear now. I shrugged off her jubilation because I’d been the one responding to Harbor then just as I was the one trying to decide whether or not to face Celia now.
My wolf still didn’t get it, but my human half had been savvy enough even at nine to understand what my father was saying between the lines. Harbor couldn’t bear to relinquish either of his responsibilities. He wasn’t an alpha werewolf, but he still possessed a deep-seated urge to protect his wife and daughter, the instinct like a heavy yoke dragging down his broad shoulders. Harbor would never leave me against my will.
But he and I both knew that I was the rotten apple tearing his marriage apart.
So nine-year-old me had puffed out her little chest and told Harbor what he needed to hear. “I’m old enough to take care of myself,” I said, simulating tween arrogance that I didn’t really feel. “Who wants to go live with humans when I have a whole pack to hang with?”
Behind us, the screen door creaked open then slapped shut with a bang. “Are you ready yet?” Celia asked her husband, averting her gaze from a daughter who she neither wanted nor loved.
The one-body clutched a cardboard box full of the few possessions she planned to take with her. Possessions that didn’t include the carton of baby photos and mementos I later found when I tore our little home apart in search of something to remember my parents by.
In contrast to my desperate clutching for the past, there was very little of our shared life that my mother hoped to remember.
“I’ll be right there,” Harbor soothed her, his voice calm and deep like the rumble of lullabies that lulled me to sleep every night.
For a moment, Celia hesitated, tapping one hard-soled sandal against the rough planks of the porch step. But then she turned toward our family’s car to stow her luggage in the trunk before sliding into the passenger-side seat. Keeping her eyes safely averted, she waited for the arrival of her mate.
My father sighed, but didn’t jump immediately to do her bidding. Instead, he rumpled up my short hair with one huge paw. “Never forget that I love you, Fen,” he murmured so quietly that Celia wouldn’t have been able to hear even if she possessed superior shifter ears. I could barely hear him, my half-blood nature meaning that my inner wolf slept most of the time. “If you ever need me, call and I’ll come.”
Then he’d turned away and walked toward my mother, leaving me shivering and abandoned in front of our little home. In the distance, I could hear the howls of our pack mates reminding me that I could turn up on their doorsteps for food or hugs at any hour of the day or night, no questions asked. It wasn’t as if I was alone in the world.
But it sure felt that way.
Years later, when I’d needed a father, Harbor hadn’t been present. I’d ached to turn to him when I grew into my own skin and ran away from the pack to spend eight months wandering alone through outpack territory. I’d needed him again when I returned to my clan and slid into a new role, slowly learning to guide teenage shifters not much younger than myself. And I could sure have used his advice at the present moment as I strove to figure out a mate bond that left me alternately giddy with joy…and on the verge of fleeing in terror.
Still, I’d never picked up a phone to call Harbor because I’d known he wouldn’t come. When I was nine years old, my father had chosen Celia over me. And now he’d fled beyond my ability to follow.
We still have a mother, my optimistic wolf whispered.
I only shook my head by way of reply. Because no matter what my inner animal thought, the one-body whose high heels were currently sinking into the sod before me was mother by blood alone. There was no point in poking my nose where it didn’t belong.
So I turned away from my father’s funeral even as I felt the electricity of transformation fill the air and heard my relatives howl out their eulogies to the clear blue sky. My wolf wordlessly yearned toward the possible companionship. But instead of pacing forward to join these family members who I barely recognized, I just retraced my steps back toward a shifter whose affections weren’t fickle and flighty, who cared for me with no strings attached.
I was plenty old enough not to need a parent. And I was better off without Celia in my life.