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This was bad. This was so very bad.
He ran full tilt, ghosting through the trees. The branches and brambles reached out and extracted their price in blood and flesh for running at such speed through their territory. He could feel the ground absorb his blood and his sweat-feel it stir at the taste. Dangerous. Feeding the earth with his blood when he was so upset was not wise.
He almost slowed his feet.
No one was chasing him.
No one had even known he was there. They'd seen the trees who'd obeyed his will, but they had not seen him. The trees . . . he might have to answer to her for the trees.
She'd told him to run, and he had paused to call the trees. That was not how their bargain was supposed to work. But he couldn't just let them take her, not when it was within his power to stop it.
Think. Think. Think. The words were his, but he heard them in her voice. She'd worked so hard to give him rules. The first rule was think.
It was funny that everyone believed that she was the danger, that she was the crazy one. Very funny-and his lips stretched in a grin only the forest could see. It wasn't amusement that caused his feral smile. He wasn't sure exactly what the emotion was, though it was fueled by an anger, a rage so deep that the earth, aroused by his blood, rose eagerly to do his bidding. The earth, out of all the elements, was the hardest to wake but the most eager for violence.
He could just go back. Go back and teach them what they got for touching someone he loved . . .
Her voice again, ringing in his ears with power. She was his dominant, though he was so much older, so much stronger. As such, she wielded power over him-a power that he'd given her out of love, out of despair, out of desolation. And their bargain, their mating bond (her word, then his) had worked for a very long time.
Anyone who cared to look around would know how well her hold on him had worked-there were still trees on this mountain, and he could hear the birds' startled flight as he ran past them. If that bargain had failed, there would be no birds, no trees. Nothing. His was an old power and hungry.
But their mating had given him balance, given him safety. His beautiful werewolf mate had brought love to his sterile existence. When that hadn't been enough, she had brought order to his chaos as well.
Order . . . that word . . . No, orders was the word that sifted through his roiling thoughts. She had given him orders for this situation.
He vaulted over a deadfall with the grace of a stag.
Call the Marrok, she had told him. And also, Right the hell now. That was the correct task. Call the Marrok for help. But the reason for his speed-his right the hell now-was because if he allowed himself to slow, he would turn around and . . .
The mountainside groaned beneath his feet. A soft shift that only someone like him-or like his true love-would feel.
His fleet footsteps . . . which had slowed . . . resumed their former speed. She was alive, his love, his mate, his keeper. She was alive, and so he had to call the Marrok and not raise the mountains or call the waters.
Today, he had to call the Marrok and tell him . . . and his mate's voice rang in his head as if she were running by his side.
I know who the traitor is . . .
Charles tipped his father's computer monitor so that it was at a better angle and wiggled the keyboard until it felt right.
He'd told Bran that he could run the pack just fine from his own home while Bran was gone, just as he had the last dozen times that the Marrok had to be away. But this time had looked as though it might last awhile, and his da had been adamant that it was important to keep the rhythms of the pack the same.
It wasn't that he didn't understand his da's reasoning-some of the hoarier wolves under his da's control weren't exactly flexible when it came to change-but understanding didn't make it any easier for Charles to function in his da's office, his da's personal territory.
Charles couldn't work in the office without making it his own-and wasn't that just going to set the fox among the hens when his da got back and had to reverse the process. But Bran would understand, as one dominant male understands another.
Charles had to admit, if only to himself, that he'd moved the mahogany bookcases to the other side of the room and reorganized the titles alphabetically by author, instead of by subject matter, just to mess with Bran. Anna, he thought, was still the only person on the planet who honestly believed he had a sense of humor, so he was pretty sure he could make his da believe the rearrangement was a necessity.
Charles hadn't moved the bookcase until Bran called him this morning, not quite a month after he'd left the pack in Charles's keeping, to let him know that his initial business was concluded-and Bran had decided he would take another week to travel.
Charles couldn't remember the last time Bran had taken a vacation from his duties. Charles hadn't realized that his da was capable of taking a vacation from his duties. But if the rearrangement of Charles's life was no longer essential, just required, then he felt free to make some changes to make his life easier. And so he'd rearranged his da's office to suit himself.
Even in the redecorated room, it took Charles longer than normal to lose himself in his work, his wolf restless in his father's place of power. Eventually, the hunting game that was international finance grew interesting enough that Brother Wolf let himself be distracted.
It was a complicated dance, to play with money at this level. The battle pleased Brother Wolf, the more so because they were good at it. Brother Wolf had a tendency toward vanity.
Eventually, drawn in by the subtle hunt for clues in the electronic data on his screen, he sank into what his mate called "finance space," chasing an elusive bit of rumor, stocks rising for no apparent reason, a new company seeking financing but there was something they weren't saying. He couldn't tell if what this company was hiding was good news or bad. He was running down the background of an engineer who'd been hired at what looked to be an abnormally high salary for his title when he was pulled out by the sound of the door hitting the wall.
He looked up, Brother Wolf foremost at this interruption to his hunt. It didn't help his temper that it was his da's mate who'd barged into (what was now) his territory without permission.
"You have to do something about your wife," Leah announced. She didn't react to his involuntary growl at her tone. When she spoke of Anna, she would do better to talk softly.
He didn't like Leah. There were a lot of people in the world he didn't like-most of them, even. But Leah had made it very easy not to like her.
When his da had brought her back with him, Charles had been a wild thing, lonely and lost. His da had taken his much-older brother, Samuel, and been gone for months off and on. Half-mad with grief at the death of Charles's mother, Bran probably hadn't been the best person to raise a child when he was home.
Charles's uncles and his grandfather had done their best, but Brother Wolf had not always been as willing to ape being human as he was now. A werewolf child born instead of made, Charles had been (as far as he knew) unique; no one, certainly not his mother's people, had any experience dealing with what he was.
A good part of the time Bran had been gone, Charles had roamed the forest on four feet, easily eluding the human adults tasked with raising him. Wild and undisciplined as he'd been, Charles had no trouble admitting that his ten-year-old self had not been a stepson that most women would have welcomed.
Still, he had been very hungry for attention, and Leah's presence meant his da was around a lot more. If Leah had made even a little effort, his younger self would have been devoted to her. But Leah, for all her other personality flaws, was deeply honest. Most werewolves were honest by habit-what good is a lie if people could tell that you are lying? But Leah was honest to the core.
It was probably one of the things that allowed Bran's wolf to mate with her. Charles could see how it would be an attractive feature-but when someone was mean and small inside, it might be better to keep quiet and hide it, honest or not, rather than display it for the world to see. The result was a mutual animosity kept within (mostly) the bounds of politeness.
Charles honored her as his da's wife and his Alpha's mate. Her usual politeness to him was brittle and rooted in her fear of Brother Wolf. But, since she was a dominant wolf, the fear she felt sometimes made her snappish and stupid.
Brother Wolf recovered his temper faster than Charles. He told Charles that Leah was agitated and a little intimidated, and that had made her rude. Brother Wolf didn't like Leah, either, but he respected her more than Charles did.
Other than the growl, he did not respond immediately to her request (he refused to think of them as orders, or he might have to take an action about them that did not involve anything she would appreciate). Instead, he raised a hand to ask her for silence.
When she gave it to him, he spent a moment leaving himself clear notes about the suspicious engineer that he could follow up on later, as well as highlighting a few other trails he'd been investigating. He concluded the other changes he wanted to make, then backed out of his dealings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Leah waited in growing, but silent, indignation.
Finished packing up his business, he looked up from the screen, crossed his arms over his chest, and asked, in what he felt was a reasonable tone, "What is it that you wish me to do with my wife?"
Apparently, his response wasn't what Leah had been looking for because her mouth got even tighter, and she growled, "She seems to think that she's in charge around here. Just because you have been placed in charge temporarily doesn't allow her the right to give orders to me."
Which seemed out of character for his wife.
Oh, the disregard for pack hierarchy, traditional or otherwise, was typical of his mate. Anna would not, Charles thought with affection, know tradition if it bit her on the ear. His Anna had carved out her own, fluid place in the pack hierarchy-mostly by ignoring all the traditions completely. It did not, however, make her rude.
Nothing good had ever come from sticking his nose in business that had nothing to do with him.
"Anna is Omega. She doesn't have to obey the Marrok," he told her. "I don't know why you think she would obey me."
Leah opened her mouth. Closed it. She gave him an exasperated growl, then stalked off.
For a conversation with his stepmother, he thought on the whole it had gone rather well. That it had been short was the best part of it.
One of the reasons he had resisted moving into Bran's home while the Marrok was gone was because he knew Leah would be in, harassing him all the time. He paused to consider that because, until this very moment, she hadn't done that. This was the first time she'd interrupted him at work. He wondered, as he began playing with the numbers on the screen in front of him, what it was that his da had said to Leah that had kept her out of his hair this effectively.
Before he was seriously buried in business again, Bran's phone rang.
"This is Charles," he said absently-as long as it wasn't Leah, he could work while he talked.
There was a long pause, though he could hear someone breathing raggedly. It was unusual enough that Charles stopped reading the article on the up-and-coming tech company and devoted all his attention to the phone.
"This is Charles," he said again. "Can I help you?"
"Okay," a man's voice said finally. "Okay. Bran's son. I remember. Is Bran there? I need to talk to the Marrok."
"Bran is gone," Charles told him. "I'm in charge while he is out of town. How can I help you?"
"Bran is gone," repeated the man's voice. It was unfamiliar, but the accent was Celtic. "Charles." He paused. "I need . . . we need you to come up here. There's been an incident." And then he hung up without leaving his name or where exactly "up here" was. When Charles tried calling him back, no one picked up the phone. Charles wrote down the number and strode out, looking for his stepmother.
He hadn't recognized the voice, and if one of the pack members had been in trouble, he'd have felt it. There was another group of wolves who lived in Aspen Creek, Montana, though they were not part of the Marrok's pack: the wolves Bran deemed too damaged or too dangerous to function as part of a pack-even the Aspen Creek Pack, which was full of damaged and dangerous wolves.
Those wolves, mostly, belonged to the Marrok alone. Not a separate pack, really, but bound to the Marrok's will and magic by blood and flesh. "Wildlings," Bran called them. Some of the pack called them things less flattering, and possibly more accurate, though no one called them the Walking Dead in front of Charles's father.
The wildlings lived in the mountains, separate from everyone, their homes and territory protected by the pack because it was in everyone's best interest for no one to intrude in what peace they could find.
Bran had given him the usual list of names and a map with locations marked. Most of them Charles had met, though there were two wolves he knew only by reputation. The wildlings were, as a whole, both dangerous and fragile. Bran did not lightly allow anyone else to interact with them.