Leah sat at the desk in her home office and let herself finally acknowledge the truth: she was drowning.
She’d been the Marrok’s mate and wife for nearly two centuries. They had an arrangement and while she’d never been particularly happy, she’d been content. At least her husband didn’t beat her like her sister’s husband, or installed a series of mistresses in various houses around the estate like her father.
She’d married Bran when the Marrok pack had still been just a dream and moved with him during the Gold rush into the Washington territories before it had even become Montana territories. She’d made a home for him and his dream and kept him stable in a way that even his beloved sons couldn’t.
She had been so happy to marry him when he had first offered.
The attack that made her a werewolf had been fully intentional, although she never learned what exactly had instigated it. It could have been intended to threaten her father, one of the pillars of their local society. Alternately, it could have been an attack on the territory of the local werewolf alpha, Jeremiah Folsom. It didn’t even matter, really, as she struggled to deal with the fear and the scars and the overarching need to lash out and kill and run and howl. What mattered was that neither her father nor Mr. Folsom could definitively prove the motive, so after she managed to survive the physical attack, she was also able to survive the disapproval of the two men who had claim to her. Her father and Mr. Folsom fought with each other over their right to her, each blaming the other for her condition, and she wound up protected in the calm eye at the center of their clashing wills.
Mr. Folsom taught her how to control her wolf and be a werewolf. He wouldn’t let her father have her sent away to an asylum or confined in the house. Every month, she was even allowed to leave the estate in order to run and fight and release her anger.
Her father kept her on his lands for the rest of the month, though, and away from the pack of male werewolves who knew that she could never get pregnant nor show any signs of injury a day later. The alpha had violated her to demonstrate that he could, that she was his, but no one else was allowed to.
She knew she was always a pawn to her father and the alpha, but neither she nor they had known what to do about her. She was too upper-class to join the werewolf pack as one of their women, but she could never marry now. Not only was she now a werewolf and spoiled goods, she was also barren, like all female werewolves. No one, not even a werewolf man, wanted a barren wife.
Mr. Folsom himself was not high society and couldn’t afford to publicly offend her father or his compatriots by flaunting the fact that he had ruined a wealthy white woman. Her father couldn’t marry her off because while few people knew the details, everyone knew she was somehow damaged.
She knew that she was an aging spinster with no hopes of her own household. She could only hope that one of her younger brothers might remain a bachelor and allow her to be his hostess.
Her father was a smart man, though. She should have known he had another plan for her. He must have gotten Mr. Folsom to agree to it, too, and even help, because she wasn’t sure how else her father could have found a werewolf widower who was respectable enough (or at least wealthy enough and living far enough away) to be a suitor for his daughter.
Mr. Bran Cornick looked much more pleasant than she had been expecting given that Mr. Folsom said he was a powerful werewolf worth currying favor, and her father had told her that she would agree to marry the man and move to the Washington Territories with him when he left.
Mr. Cornick was a sweet looking man, although that was no way to judge how he’d treat a wife. Looks could be deceiving and certainly were, since he also looked much too young to have full grown sons.
But he was also sweet when he met her. He had asked her and her father’s permission to speak privately with her in the garden.
He had asked her about her experience as a werewolf so far and she had given honest, if extremely edited, answers. If he was willing to marry her as part of an agreement with Mr. Folsom, she couldn’t risk speaking poorly of him. And her mother had always told her that no man liked a woman who spoke badly of her father.
He had been polite.
And she had finally relaxed enough to ask him why he was even willing to marry a werewolf woman.
He had been honest in return, although just as edited, she would later learn.
“My wolf is unstable and a mate bond helps. I also plan to travel a significant amount in the near future and need someone to maintain my household. My cabin is out in the Washington territories. I have two grown sons and I don’t want any more children. What I need is a werewolf mate and household manager.”
It sounded like a dream come true. But, “you’ll be traveling for extended periods of time? Is it… safe there? For me?”
He had gotten that condescending look on his face that reminded her that he was a man like any other and didn’t quite understand why a werewolf woman would care about safety. But he had still been kind in his explanation. “As my mate, you would speak with my voice. You would be able to command any strange werewolf who came there. I will make sure you know how to fight off anything else that might show up before I go on my first trip. Are you willing to marry me?”
He must have known that she would accept his offer regardless of his answers. It made her feel better, though, that he was still considerate of her when he didn’t have to be.
He wasn’t the prince she had dreamed of when she had been a small child, but he was far better than anything she had imagined for herself this past year.
“I would be delighted to be your wife. Thank you.”
She had smiled warmly at him as she relaxed control of her wolf and reached out to his. It would have been more proper to wait until their actual wedding, she knew, but she wanted to make sure she could even do this at all. She had reached out for him and his wolf had reached back. She’d had enough training in high society before becoming a werewolf that she didn’t flinch, didn’t even let her smile dim, when she had first felt the monster he called his wolf.
He had said his wolf was unstable and that a mating bond would help him.
It was nice to know that she wasn’t just a pity case. He clearly needed her, too, ruined woman that she was. She didn’t imagine there were many who would put up with what he had inside him.
She had thought that maybe this was a fairytale like La Belle et la Bête. It wasn’t until several years later when she met his youngest son—Charles, who was her own age—that she realized that Bran had already found and lost again his Belle. She was just another unwary traveler sacrificed to la Bête.
It wasn’t until much later that she learned that he had agreed to marry her because she repulsed him as much as his wolf did. He wanted a mate who could stabilize his monstrosity of a wolf and a woman he was never in danger of loving.
That discovery had made her want to cry. She hadn’t cried though. She was strong. She didn’t need love or even respect. No marriage was perfect, and at least it gave her a household of her own and a purpose.
For decades she had managed all of the money and finances of the growing pack. Then Charles had returned from his wanderings and settled down for a time with the Marrok’s pack. Bran had decided that their finances were sufficiently grand that they needed a financial plan rather than an estate budget. Estate budgets could be maintained by wives, but financial plans were the affairs of men.
Before the women’s rights movement of the 1960s had overturned female culture across society, she’d helped individual women attacked by werewolves overturn their own ingrained social expectations. She’d had the character and understanding to help debutants raised to be passive to discard all their training, in order to have a fighting chance at surviving the instincts of a werewolf. It was almost humorous how the women’s rights movement had decreased her power rather than increased it.
At least she had still been the only person able to give Bran control of his grotesque wolf. But that too changed when Charles mated with an Omega and brought her back to the Marrok’s pack.
The Omega was really the final straw, she thinks.
For so many years, she had been able to just… ignore how her purpose had slowly worn away over the years.
But then one of Bran’s few actual friends had failed to gain control of his wolf after his change, and Bran had killed him rather than accept Leah’s help. The Omega arrived the day of the funeral, and forced Leah to face how weak her position had become.
In her presence, Leah’s so-long-suppressed rage and grief had burst out of her and she couldn’t make herself shut up. “He had no business there! He killed Carter. And now he pretends to mourn him? I couldn’t keep him from going. He never listens to me anyway, does he? His sons are his advisors, all I am is a replacement for his lost love, the incomparably beautiful, self-sacrificing Indian bitch. I can’t stop him, but I won’t support him either.”
She had supported him in so much. Even as she taunted him or railed against him, she had always still supported him in the end. But not in this. She refused. She hated that he treated her as nothing more than a useful crutch for his wolf, but she could accept that. It hurt only her, and it wasn’t like she hadn’t agreed to their arrangement. But she couldn’t support him when his refusal to see her as useful actually kept her from being useful.
There was a reason why there were so few female werewolves: women were raised to be nonviolent and passive, to be quiet and calm and everything that was anathema to a wolf. How many female werewolves had she helped get through the exact same issues that Carter had faced? She had never bothered to count. Everyone in the pack might think she was a bitch, but she had survived her transformation into a werewolf and she had helped others do the same.
But Bran had refused to let her help Carter.
Because she had never liked the man, had been jealous of his friendship with her husband? Because Bran had somehow thought she’d liked all of the women she’d helped in the past, had never been jealous of them?
Because he didn’t think she could do anything for Carter? Because of course a modern man would never struggle with the same issues as so many debutants of the past had. So Bran had allowed his friend to sink into insanity and be killed for it, all because he refused to acknowledge strength and ability in his wife.
And on the day of the funeral that she might have been able to prevent, she’d had to meet an Omega wolf, the mate of her husband’s beloved son, and another victim who’d been “rescued” by mating with a powerful older werewolf. The Omega didn’t know any better than Leah had. She wondered how long it would take her to realize her value to Charles was in existing rather than anything she did or said. It wouldn’t be too long. An Omega’s presence, after all, decreased reticence. Charles would likely tell her himself one day. The Omega’s presence had forced Leah to confront the despair she had hidden from for so long. She had actually been brought to tears in front of one of the newest female wolves.
Leah had actually cried in front of witnesses.
“Oh, God. Oh my God.”
She’d cried in front of a new wolf and in front of Sage, and with less than half a century’s experience between the two of them. Two wolves who were already more loved by her husband than she ever had a chance at. In front of two wolves who thought Leah was less than nothing, a bed warmer for the Marrok.
She’d done her best to avoid the Omega ever since.
The Omega could help any troubled wolves better than Leah could anyway. Including helping Bran himself.
Kara’s arrival then felt like a death knell.
Kara was so young and so strong. Turned as a prepubescent female, she had been born into the digital age, raised to be the equal of any man, and was a living demonstration that the subservience of female werewolves to their male counterparts could be flouted. She had a will of iron and a family that loved her. And she fascinated so many of the old and powerful werewolves.
Asil who thought Leah a whore because she amused herself with flirting, protected Kara.
Devon, who stayed in wolf form and ignored everyone in the pack, worried about Kara.
Bran, a man who avoided love by marrying a woman he refused to even like, loved Kara more than he was willing to admit to himself.
And Leah liked her, too, although she had to struggle against her own jealousy.
She could feel Bran’s captivation with the child, whom he could dominate with age, but might one day meet as an equal. If ever there could be a female alpha of a pack, it would be Kara. When Leah needed to command, she had to pull on her husband’s power. She didn’t even know how much or little power she might have had, but she was certainly given no respect on her own behalf. But Kara already garnered so much respect. Everyone who knew her knew that she would one day command entirely in her own right. She was, in fact, already getting in trouble commanding her elders.
Bran smiled with amusement and allowed Kara’s orders to stand when the same order from Leah would get a grimace and be countermanded by habit.
And the worst part was how Bran relied on his dislike of her, in order to permit himself to love others. Bran fooled himself into thinking that his mate necessarily had to be his closest bond. He thought that if he pushed her away, then he also avoided all other attachments. He told himself that as long as he wasn’t close to her, then he didn’t have to worry about getting too close to anyone.
Without her presence, Leah knew that Bran would never go near the girl. Without her presence, Bran’s wolf would have tried to mate with the girl the instant she reached whatever level of maturity the millennium old monster thought was appropriate. With Kara now fourteen and post-pubescent, it probably would have happened already.
So, Bran clung all the tighter to Leah’s mate-bond, and all the tighter to his disdain of her as well, because he considered both necessary to his sanity.
At least not any longer. Hadn’t the precious Omega shown that?
She knew it even if he didn’t.
Bran wasn’t the lone traveler anymore, mourning the death of his beloved wife. He was the apex of a massive network of werewolf packs that spanned the breadth and width of the North American continent. His sons were both mated, and one to an Omega who lived practically next door to him.
He didn’t need Leah and he had never wanted her; all he did was wear her down, and the opportunities to build herself up were slipping away one by one.
The annual diplomatic gathering between werewolves and Fae had been a high point of her life. It was the last pack event that Leah still presided over. It was the one time a year when she could actually use her training in hosting formal gatherings. She was good enough at it to impress even the glamorously sophisticated Fae and to demonstrate the worthiness of werewolf society to an arrogant race prone to see all others as lesser. It was the one time a year that Leah could prove her worth to Bran and, more importantly, to herself.
It was the one time a year when she had allowed herself to pretend that she was treasured. With the werewolf finances taken out of her hands and the pack grown to be a town rather than a household, the fae–werewolf gathering was the one event each year that still gave Leah purpose.
And now it was gone.
Alistair Beauclaire’s declaration of the Fae reservations as a sovereign nation and Bran’s wariness of open diplomatic relations with them seemed like a point of no return. She knew that the event would return in a few years. It would be more necessary than ever for the fae and werewolf communities to maintain open communication. But she also knew that she would not be the one presiding over it. That role would likely be taken over by either the Omega or Arianna, the mates of Bran’s sons. Or maybe even one of the men, who would declare it an important diplomatic event rather than a mere social one, and thus remove it from the realm of women’s work. She couldn’t bring herself to care who it ended up with; all that mattered was that it was no longer hers.
She should be used to such losses by now, but this just seemed like too much. Too much too quickly. The Omega and Kara and this all within two years’ time. It felt like the world itself had conspired with her mate and her pack to emphasize her worthlessness.
For most of the year, she entertained herself with planning and re-planning the gathering. It had been a hobby and a joy, a purpose and a way to convince herself that she was still useful, still important. And now she didn’t have it.
Now there was just final acceptance and closing down the last avenues for achieving self-worth.
She called each of her contractors personally to cancel their services.
It was the same conversation repeated each time.
“I am sorry to let you know that my annual event has been canceled this year and likely for the foreseeable future. I wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that you didn’t work your schedule around it. Please let me know if I can provide you with any references. I can give you glowing reviews.”
She wondered how many livelihoods she was hurting with these calls. Not many people needed or could afford the perfection her contractors provided. If she could mitigate their losses with help finding other patrons, she would do so. She paid an enormous amount for the services and goods she wanted. Never more than they were worth, but never any less, either.
In the beginning, when she had maintained the budget as a homesteading wife, she had pinched every penny. Once the pack had grown large and wealthy and Charles had taken over the budget, she spent as much as she wanted in any way she wanted just to see if anyone would tell her to stop.
No one ever did.
It did allow her to hire artisans and performers for events that impressed even immortal fae, accustomed to magic.
And the contractors were always grateful.
She tried not to cling to these conversations with humans around the world with whom she shared common interests, and who may or may not like her, but who all respected her. It was a salve to hear their compliments.
"Mrs. Cornick, I am so sorry to that I won’t get the chance to work with you this year.”
“I’m so sorry your event is being canceled. Being part of creating such a spectacle has always been a high point of my year.”
“I’m so sorry to miss my chance to work with you this year. I hope you’ll keep me in mind for any future work you need.”
The best part was she could hear that they were telling the truth. All of them would miss her business and the prestige that came with working with her. But many of them were also genuinely sorry not to be able to work with her.
"That's kind of you to say,” she replied.
Sophia Vasquez, though, was perhaps the most surprising in her compliment.
“We will all miss hosting your convention, Mrs. Cornick. I feel like I learned more from seeing you at work than I did in my hospitality management program."
Ms. Vasquez was not her normal contact at the upscale hotel and conference center. Her normal contact had been a known fae who would have returned to the nearest reservation weeks ago when all the other known fae did. Ms. Vasquez was an impressive and powerful woman who managed the upscale hotel and retreat magnificently but didn’t have the personality to interact with clients nor the interest in faking a conciliatory personality.
Leah liked her.
"It is true. And actually that brings me to a question I hoped to ask you. Since the fae have left, we are short many of our senior event planners and are feeling it. Do you have any suggestions for whom we could hire?"
"Hmm." Leah considered. Many of the best event planners were fae, she knew, and had been pulled back to the reservations. Fae, after all, made a deadly competition of social events. Leah had always enjoyed being part of that competition. There were certainly plenty of normal humans who were quite talented, but she could see how there would now be a vacuum at the very top of the field.
"Let me think on it and I'll call you back."
"I appreciate it. At the moment, I’m having to take up the slack.”
And that, both the hint of personal revelation and the dry humor from the normally reserved woman, surprised an actual laugh out of Leah.
Leah could only imagine that some high society individuals and large corporate representatives had been in for quite the shock when they’d discovered the urbane Evgeny had left and been replaced by Ms. Vasquez with her sharp judgment. Ms. Vasquez herself was likely missing her own regular routine as well, with numbers and orders.
“I doubt you’re alone in your predicament. At least half of the name-recognition event planners at this level are fae.”
“There are a lot of openings, and while I can offer a more than competitive salary with extensive benefits, the fact that my hotel is largely surrounded by a wildlife preserve rather than city attractions is hurting me. Evgeny enjoyed it, but he was a rare find.”
“Hmm. Yes.” Evgeny had been a vulpine fae of some kind and had enjoyed the wildlife preserve as much as she and her wolves had. The other wolves had avoided him, but Leah had appreciated the freedom of running with someone outside of the pack. “I’ll try to get back to you with some suggestions before the end of the week.”
“Thank you. I hope your own situation improves as well.”
“One can only hope.” She spoke with some acid. She didn’t bother to apologize. Sophia wouldn’t expect one anyway. They both hung up.
She stared at the phone for a while, thinking through the various event planners she had worked with in the past and her opinions of them and their current positions. Some of them would be no good, most of them wouldn’t be tempted away from their current positions, but there were a few possibilities as long as Ms. Vasquez was willing to pay enough. Leah thought through her schedule; maybe she’d call them to find out about their current situations before passing on their names.
It was a good idea even though she knew it was also an excuse to interact with the world outside of the pack for just a bit longer. She couldn’t help but fantasize just a bit about taking the job herself.
She’d be good at it.
She had been raised to be a wife. She had always known that she was supposed to marry into wealth and host her husband’s social events. She had learned seating arrangements and party planning at her mother’s knee.
For a moment she allowed herself to daydream.
She could have a job she was good at, a purpose that the people around her respected.
She would leave the pack behind and run as a lone wolf on the nature preserve, without being followed or chided or mocked or even watched.
Maybe she’d flirt or even sleep with other guys, because in this daydream, Bran wasn’t there. The travelers she’d invite to her bed would probably not be as talented lovers as Bran was, but they’d warm her in ways he never did.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d sat there at her desk just thinking of what might have been if she had been born later. If she had been born in a time when a husband hadn’t been necessary to have a household. If some other woman had been found to give Bran stability.
Bran himself coming into the house barely pulled her out of her fantasy. Normally he did his things and she did hers and they never even interacted. But today had been hard and she needed comfort. She wanted to be held in warm arms for a bit, even if those arms belonged to the man responsible for so much that was wrong. She pulled herself away from her desk and went into the living room where Bran was just hanging up his coat.
She lowered her barriers a bit and reached out to Bran’s wolf; dark possessive presence that it was, it would always reach back to her. Bran looked mildly surprised but willing to acquiesce to her unspoken request.
And then Kara stormed in to their house, as if to remind Leah of how little her needs mattered.
Kara didn’t even see Leah. Kara was destined to be someone, for all that she was only fourteen, and she didn’t even see Leah. Instead, she yelled at Bran, “I don’t need a guy to fight my battles for me!”
Leah couldn’t find it in herself to care about what had prompted this outburst. It didn’t matter. Bran had turned immediately toward Kara, focused on her cares, in a way that he never was with Leah. “It’s not about that.”
It was too much for Leah.
“Go away,” Leah told Kara, channeling her mate’s power, enforcing her will on the girl. Kara might be dominant to many in the pack, but she still had to obey the Marrok and as his mate, Leah could speak with his voice.
Except that Bran immediately contradicted Leah, “Stay.” He used his own power to override her order. Then he finally turned back to Leah and said, without using power, “Can you give us a moment.” Even without any coercion, it was an order. It certainly wasn’t a question.
Leah found herself baring her human teeth at her mate, and it almost felt like grinning. It almost felt like scoring a point when she forced him to slap her down in front of others. He didn’t like to think he was such a bad husband. And if he contradicted her, at least he was paying attention to what she did.
She found herself thinking that maybe Kara had a point. If Kara didn’t need someone to fight her battles, did Leah need anyone else to fight hers? Leah didn’t fight her own battles because her husband was the most powerful werewolf in the Americas. Who was there for her to fight except those who must obey Bran and Bran himself? Maybe it was time for her to stand and fight.
“No,” she said. She was just so angry at him and at Kara and at herself and at the whole damn world. She could actually feel herself still channeling his power even though it would have no effect directed as it was back at him. “You need to decide who’s more important to you here and now, her or me. Because I want her out of my house right now.”
Bran sighed, as if he couldn’t believe how petty she was being. She wasn’t being petty! “I’m not choosing her over you. I just need to talk with her right now, and you’re not helping.”
No, she wasn’t helping, was she. Nothing she did would help him, because he wouldn’t let her. And even if she did somehow manage to help despite him he would never acknowledge it, would he.
“You are an idiot if you don’t know that is choosing. Very well, make your choice—have her instead.” And she took as much power as she could—and she’d had a lot of experience channeling his power, since none of his wolves gave her any respect without it—and she pointed at Kara. It wasn’t exactly intentional, but she wasn’t really surprised either when she felt her mate bond with Bran rip free of her and seize the girl. And like that it was gone from her senses.
Both Bran and the girl went white with shock and horror. Leah thought that she ought to be horrified, too, except that she was just so angry and the loss felt like a release. She was free.
"Leah? Kara, what, Leah?" Bran sounded more lost and fragile than she'd ever heard him before. She got a vicious pleasure out of finally making an impact.
Her pack bond also vanished, too weak a connection to the other wolves to survive the loss of her mate bond to their leader. The pack bindings dissipated with the bond, as fragile as a single thread of a spider’s web. She was a lone wolf. A female lone wolf, something no one had thought possible and yet here she was.
Her daydream had come true.
She took a deep breath of the crisp air and felt lighter than a feather, as giddy as at her first presentation ball.
Bran was still dominant to her, though, so she knew better than to stick around and give him a chance to regain his balance. Kara could take care of herself and even if she couldn’t, Asil would help her. This was Leah’s dream and she was keeping it! She turned and walked away.
Her anger had burned itself out, replaced by heady relief. She practically floated out of the living room and into her bedroom. She felt high on possibilities.
She was free and she was going to stay that way.
She emptied her jewelry box into a backpack, along with several changes of underwear. Her wallet and cellphone went in, too, and then she was out the back door.
In the front room, she could smell that Kara had half-shifted, ready to fight off her surprise mate. Well, good luck to her. Leah was washing her hands of it all. She was done.
She could still hear them faintly (Kara: "I'll kill you. I will! Don't you come near me!" Bran: "I would never, I didn't, I don't intend to do anything to harm you!") when she pulled out her cell phone and called Ms. Vasquez again.
"Hello, Ms. Vasquez. This is Leah. I hope I'm not calling you too late."
There was only the faintest pause as Sophia registered that Leah had introduced herself by her first name only, but she was both smart and quick. "Leah, it is always a good time to hear from you,” Ms. Vasquez lied, but it was the type of polite social lie that stood in for a real truth. Sophia Vasquez would always make time for Leah and ensure that she always felt welcomed even at awkward times. “Please call me Sophia. How can I help you?”
Leah could also hear a faint thread of expectation in Ms. Vasquez’s, no, in Sophia’s voice. Sophia was smart as a whip and might have guessed from both the timing and the greeting what was coming. Leah found herself smiling.
"I find myself a free agent for the first time in a long time. My soon-to-be-ex husband is currently busy with a younger lady.” It would be no surprise to Sophia, who had to have known for years that Leah was not happily married, and it was better to get that information out of the way. “I have no resume to speak of, but I was wondering if I could submit my own name for the position of event planner."
"Leah, I would be absolutely delighted.” And she really was. There was real pleasure and excitement in Sophia’s voice. “Just tell me what name would you like on your offer letter and may I arrange your travel here? I very much look forward to working with you."
"Thank you." She knew there was too much emotion in that simple thanks. She wasn’t sure how much of the relief and grief and pleasure Sophia would be able to hear. Leah pressed on, refusing to let the gratitude stand alone, and found herself speaking the truth when she continued, "I very much look forward to this new stage in my life."