I’d been Alpha of my pack for three years and I still hated it. Well, hate might be a little strong, but I surely didn’t enjoy it. What was there to enjoy? Settling arguments and conflicts between grown people who acted like children? Ensuring our territory remained protected from potential threats no matter the hour of day or night? Blessing the unions of dozens of couples and officiating ceremonies naming their children and accepting them into the pack, never to have the chance of experiencing that joy for myself?
But no matter how I felt about it, the duty was mine. I’d been born and raised for it. My father, his father before him, and so on and so forth as far back in our family tree as anyone could recall. We were Alphas of the Nasa River pack, so named after our line. A Nasa formed the pack and had always led the pack. So on my thirtieth birthday, I did my duty and stood with my father beside the wide river running through our territory in front of our entire pack and accepted the responsibility to lead and protect our people.
Others expected me to rejoice on that day, and I did my best to let them think they were right. I hugged women, shook hands with men, smiled at youth; I even laughed. Unfortunately, my heart wasn’t in it. Because that day hadn’t gone the way I’d thought it would. For years, I’d expected to have a man by my side when I took the oath. I thought we’d be taking it together, hand in hand, agreeing to lead my pack and his, a joining that would have given us the largest territory on seven continents and ensured our prosperity and safety no matter the threat.
But my betrothed had betrayed the pact our parents had made before we were conceived. He had betrayed his pack. He had betrayed the bond we’d formed as teens. And most of all, he had betrayed me. Without a backward glance, he had tossed aside the promises we’d made to each other, scribbled in letters we hoped our parents would never read, whispered in surreptitious late-night telephone calls, and sealed with a sweet kiss that had meant as much to me as the blood we’d joined in front of witnesses, starting a bonding process that was supposed to be unbreakable. Instead of remaining faithful to one, he chose to sate his need with many.
I hadn’t been enough for him, but despite the sharp pain of his rejection, which had dulled to a constant ache over the past decade, he would always be the only one for me. I’d tried. Mercy knew I’d tried to put him behind me and find another man to share my life. But all I could find were men to share my bed, and even those encounters were less pleasing than that one stolen kiss from then sixteen-year-old Zakai Berura after his father’s funeral. I was twenty-one at the time. Twenty-one and never been kissed. I had thought I was saving myself for my mate. I was wrong.
“Mom! Dad! Are you ready?” I shouted as I rushed into the kitchen on the morning of Kai’s eighteenth birthday. “It’s time to go.”
My shoes were on, but untied, my shirt askew, and my hair uncombed. I probably had pillow creases on my cheek. It didn’t matter. The day had finally come to take the final step bonding me to my mate. And this was the good step. So good, I’d gotten hard for years thinking about it. It was the step we got to do without our clothes.
I trembled at the prospect of his thin, sinewy body on display for me.
At twenty-three, a lot of guys I’d grown up with were married, and the ones who weren’t had gone through more than one girlfriend or boyfriend. In some ways, I was jealous of them. I mean, they got laid on a regular basis, and I had perfected the art of masturbation to the point I could teach a class on the subject. But my jealousy wasn’t deep-seated because I knew the bond I’d share with my mate would make the waiting worthwhile.
“Abel, I told you yesterday that Zakai’s stepfather hasn’t returned my calls,” my father said, sounding frustrated. I didn’t think it was with me.
Though my mother’s back was to me, I saw her flinch.
“Maybe he’s busy,” I said dismissively. “Whatever. We don’t need Nicholas Crenshaw to complete the bond.”
My tone might have been on the wrong side of respectful considering I was describing the sort-of-Alpha of the Sunset Valley pack, but I was right. Kai and I didn’t need anybody except each other to finish our bond and mate.
Already, we were connected. Our parents had started the process before we were born, making a pact sealed in their blood that their progeny would mate and join our family lines into one. A mating had to be blessed by the pack Alpha, which was easy because our grandfathers were the Alphas of our respective packs at that time. But by the laws of our kind, the mating also had to be agreed to in free will by both mates.
As the firstborn son, I was in line to lead our pack after my father. Kai was firstborn in his line, also slated to lead. In the early years, our parents were concerned about the fate of their plan—if either Kai or I had veered toward females instead of males, we never could have agreed to the mating in our hearts. But whether it was fate, the blood bond, or luck, we both knew we were gay from a young age. And even better, we liked each other.
“I know you’re anxious to, uh, see Zakai,” my mother said as she turned away from the stove. “But we can’t go onto another pack’s land uninvited.”
My father snorted, no doubt because he knew my desire was to do much more than set eyes on my intended. The one downside to having a younger mate was waiting for him to reach adulthood so we could complete our bond. With a five-year age difference between us, we hadn’t had much in common as youths, but Kai had been my shadow at every biannual interpack gathering since the day he could walk, and I hadn’t minded. Even before I knew about our parents’ pact, I had a sense that he was mine. And he used to tell me he was born for me.
“He’s my mate and it’s his pack. How is that being uninvited?” I said.
“It’s not his pack yet, Abel. He’ll step into his father’s role when he turns thirty.”
I growled. Mating with an older Alpha would allow Kai to come into his Alpha power early. And he would be mating with an older Alpha. He’d be mating with me.
“Excuse me.” He sighed. “I meant, the two of you will step into his father’s role together when you turn thirty,” he amended. “Until then, his stepfather is technically Alpha of the Sunset Valley pack.”
My mother looked ashen in response to my father’s words. I knew she didn’t like Kai’s stepfather, but she never spoke ill of him, at least not around me. Kai’s father, Lee Berura, had died when he was sixteen, leaving behind his wife Loretta, Kai, and six-year-old Kelly. Kai was too young to take his rightful place as Alpha then, so his mother agreed to mate with another pack member who would fill the role until Kai came of age. My mom never told me why she didn’t like Nicholas, but I assumed it was because of her loyalty to Kai’s father.
Our parents had met as newly married couples and immediately struck up a tight friendship. It was unusual for shifters from different packs to be so close, but it had served us well when our parents had come up with the idea to combine our packs. Power, security, and strength came with more land and more members. Yet most packs would never consider joining together because becoming one pack meant losing an Alpha and an inner circle, which was unheard of. No pack would agree to have their leader step aside and leave them vulnerable to another Alpha who wouldn’t have the same loyalty and care for them as he did for his own pack.
So our parents found a solution—an Alpha connected to both packs through a blood bond and a mating, or in our case, because we were both males, two Alphas joined together to lead as a team. Without the bond, it would be impossible for an Alpha to cede power, but with it, Kai and I would have no trouble sharing that role.
“Don’t you think it’s odd that he isn’t responding to your calls, Matthew?” my mother said pointedly to my father. “Everyone knows the boys planned to complete their bond on Zakai’s eighteenth birthday, and you’ve been trying to reach him for weeks to arrange this.”
“Marjorie, come on.” My father rubbed at his temples and sighed in frustration. “You’re not helping.”
“How is speaking the truth not helping?” I countered. “There’s no reason for Nicholas to ignore your calls.”
Questioning another Alpha was the height of impropriety, but my father’s pinched lips, furrowed brow, and tense shoulders told me he was doing just that, even if it was only in his head. “Maybe he’s worried about Zakai being so young,” he suggested halfheartedly.
Given how often our parents brought our families together, by the time Kai made his first shift at fourteen, everyone knew our fate. We stood in front of our parents and elders, under the full moon, and held hands as we spoke the vows, agreeing to bind our souls. Then each of us pierced the tip of our own index finger with our sharp canine and pressed the bleeding digits together, melding our blood and binding our souls.
I’ve heard people who mated as adults say the mating bond feels like a rope snapping in place. It wasn’t like that for us because we’d had threads weaving us together for as long as we could remember. So instead of a new connection appearing, our vows to Mother Earth and each other, along with our shared blood, thickened the web of attachments and heightened our longing for each other.
My body yearned for his, and he had always told me he felt the same way. We could have waited longer; eighteen was young for a male to take a mate. But we didn’t see the point in prolonging the inevitable, which was why we’d agreed to complete our mating as soon as he came of age.
“Nicholas doesn’t get to choose,” I snapped. “We’re bound! Kai is an adult now, and he wants to be with me.”
The truth was, I hadn’t heard from my betrothed in going on a year. It wouldn’t have struck anybody else as unusual, because we weren’t supposed to have contact with each other until he turned eighteen. But neither of us had stuck to that rule. After the day we made our blood oath, we’d called each other in secret as often as we could and written letters, even knowing there was a risk someone would find them. But all that had changed when Kai’s mother died a year earlier.
His father had died in a rockslide. He’d been out running alone in his wolf form when the edge of the cliff crumbled and he lost his footing. Nobody had been there to see it happen, but that was what they’d determined from the condition and location of his body.
A year later, his mother met a similar fate when her car rolled off the same cliff and plummeted into the canyon below. They said it was an accident, but whispers of her having taken her own life to join her mate had traveled all the way across state lines to our pack. Her funeral was closed to visitors, lending credence to those rumors.
Though she had agreed to mate with Nicholas Crenshaw for the good of the pack, Loretta Berura had refused to bind herself to him. By all rights, she could have. A blood bond terminated when either mate perished, so she was no longer bound to Kai’s father. But even after Lee’s death, Loretta fiercely loved him, so she couldn’t truly accept another in free will, making a blood binding to Nicholas impossible, something I’d heard my mother say was a blessing rather than a curse.
I had assumed Kai’s grief was the reason he stopped writing and calling. He had a lot on his plate and, sure, I would have loved the opportunity to help him with it, but I understood the rules, understood why sneaking around with me might make things harder on him. So I waited patiently, crossed out the days on my calendar, and dreamed of the day my mate would turn eighteen. Now that day had come, and I would wait no longer.
“I’m going,” I announced.
“What do you mean, you’re going?” my father asked, wide-eyed.
“I mean, I’m getting in my car and I’m driving to Sunset Valley to claim my mate. That’s what I mean.”
“But you don’t have an invit—”
“He’s my mate!” I took in a deep breath and tried to stop myself from shaking. It wasn’t easy, but I was partially successful.
“Abel, honey.” My mother stepped over and put her hand on my shoulder. “I understand how frustrating it’s been for you to have to wait the past few years, but—”
“No, you don’t.” I clenched my jaw. “Just the fact you said that means you don’t understand.”
My father got up from his chair. “Abel. Watch your tone.”
“When did you meet Mom?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“I don’t see what that has to—”
“She was twenty,” I continued, undeterred. “You were twenty-two, and you got married a year later and bound yourselves by blood.”
“I know you’re a little older than we were, but—”
“But during that year, before you exchanged blood, you were together, right? Nobody forced you apart. You got to see each other, touch each other.” I was comfortable talking about sex, but they were my parents and that had its limits, so I stopped there. Besides, I think they got my point. “Now imagine if you didn’t get any of that. Imagine if you couldn’t go anywhere near your mate for years. And imagine if it happened after you were bound.”
“That’s not fair, Abel. You haven’t been bound to Zakai in the same way yet.”
“How do you know?” I barked. “Neither of you were fated! You met each other, chose each other, and then bound. We were born bound, made to be bound. The first blood was shared by you, but we’re the ones who feel it—Kai and me. The second blood we gave each other—” I shivered, remembering the feelings that coursed through my body as our souls and hearts and minds seemed to braid together with ever-thickening cords. “Kai is mine, made for me, just for me. And I will not be denied another day. Not by Nicholas Crenshaw and not by you. You can come with me or you can stay here and wait for me to return. Either way, I’m going to get my mate.”
Realizing I wouldn’t be dissuaded, my father called Nicholas and left one more message—this one saying we would arrive that evening. We didn’t take anybody with us, wanting to mitigate what my father insisted could be perceived as an invasion on another pack’s land. But he didn’t want me to go alone, so he joined me on what I thought was my drive to fulfill my destiny.
I was sure Kai returned my feelings, certain we had a love match as well as a blood bond. So I was completely unprepared for what I found when I arrived at his house.
As it turned out, Nicholas wasn’t the reason we couldn’t mate. He greeted us at the door, apologized for his lack of availability, and blamed his busy schedule. My father looked around in confusion, and I knew he was noticing how different the place looked from when we’d been there two years prior for Lee’s funeral. Because it was the Alpha’s house, the space had always been large. But where the décor had once been modest and comfortable, we now stood in an ornate to the point of bombastic estate, complete with a tennis court and pool. It was strange, but I was too distracted to care. When I asked for Kai, Nicholas smirked and told me he was in the pool house. I immediately dashed outside and ran to find my mate.
Unfortunately, someone else had found him first. Three someones, by my count. One zipping up his pants as he left the pool house. Another taking off his clothes next to the bed. And a third completely naked on the bed behind my equally naked mate. Nothing and nobody could have prepared me for the sight of Kai, my Kai, on all fours, gripping the bedframe as a man pushed into him.
For a second, I hoped I was mistaken, hoped it wasn’t him. But when I gasped, he turned his head and that hope, along with every other hope I had, was dashed. His face was thinner than the last time I’d seen him, his sandy brown hair disheveled, and his hazel eyes no longer glowing with joy and love when he looked at me. But there was no question that the man having sex with someone else was my bond-mate, my betrothed, my Kai.
The rest of the day was a blur. I remember running to my father, explaining what I’d seen, and telling him the mating was off. To his credit, Nicholas didn’t try to hold us to the pact. He admitted he’d known about Kai’s indiscretions, but despite all his efforts, he hadn’t been able to tame the wild child. And so, as quickly as we’d arrived in Sunset Valley, my father and I left.
On the long drive home, he told me I’d be okay. He assured me that I was young and time would heal my wounds. He said the bonding wasn’t complete, so I was free to find someone else.
Ten years later, I was still waiting for those things to happen.