The white woman sitting at the only occupied table in the now closed restaurant was smaller than Clementine had been expecting. She looked fragile and smelled like nerves covered by bravado.
She’d actually met Leah – Leah Cornick at that time – some years back, but the Marrok’s mate hadn’t made much of an impression at the time. In comparison, the recent video made Leah seem like a giant.
Leah herself had originally sent the video to the All-Alpha List Serve that the Marrok maintained. It was security footage from the conference center that Leah now worked at, dated a week after the Marrok had formally announced that Leah was no longer his mate.
It hadn’t been the best quality video, but viewers could still see and hear Jonathan, the alpha of the Wood Hollow pack, and Emmanuel, his second, confronting Leah.
It started abruptly with Jonathan saying, “You should have presented yourself weeks ago. You’ll be a member of my pack.”
“No, I won’t be, and no, I shouldn’t have. I am a lone wolf and will remain a lone wolf for the rest of my life.”
The video angle was awkward, but Clementine had watched it enough times to know that through the whole conversation, Leah never made eye contact with either of the other wolves. She looked over their shoulders and above their heads. Demonstrating neither dominance nor submission, she placed herself firmly outside any traditional werewolf mode of confrontation.
“You can’t be a lone wolf. You’re too vulnerable as a female. I’ll protect you. We all will. You’ll be treated with the utmost respect, but you have to be a member.”
“If you want to treat me with respect, you’ll walk away. I won’t go with you and I’ll never submit again.”
“You don’t have a choice.” Jonathan had been trying to catch Leah’s eye the whole time, but it wasn’t until that point that he actually put his hands on her. He put a hand on her shoulder.
Clementine had gone through this next bit screen by screen in order to catch the details that were too fast for regular viewing: the dagger that Leah had up her sleeve, slid out in one hand, flipped over, and stabbed right into Jonathan’s heart. It must have been silver and Leah must have had perfect aim, because it looked like a heart attack.
That’s essentially what it was, really. Jonathan’s heart just stopped. He was on the ground, to all appearances dead, before Emmanual even noticed what had happened. Leah turned immediately to Emmanual, ignoring the body at her feet, and said, “You’re now the alpha of the Wood Hollow pack. So I will tell you what I told the previous alpha: I will never join another pack. You need to walk away.”
The video clip ended there. Clementine didn’t know what happened next, but the facts were this: Emmanual was still alive and the current alpha of the Wood Hollow pack, and Leah was still alive and a lone wolf working at that same conference center. There had been no arrests or even news reports in mainstream media.
But that video clip had made the rounds within werewolf society. From the All-Alpha List Serve it had travelled via email and drop box and secure server to every female werewolf with internet access and any sort of connection with another female werewolf.
There was a female lone wolf who had defended her right to be a lone wolf and won. She hadn’t needed to be dominant, just determined and fast and ruthless with nothing left to lose.
The video itself was a challenge to the alphas.
It was evidence that she had murdered a werewolf.
It was also evidence that women were subjugated in werewolf society.
It was mutually assured destruction if it ever hit mainstream media.
It was a lit match in a powder keg within werewolf society.
And now here was the original spark, sitting in her restaurant after hours, waiting for her. Clementine almost regretted insisting on a face-to-face meeting for their final negotiations. Surely everything could have been resolved via email? Except, no, there were some things she really did need to hear in person.
They were the only two left in the closed building, although some of her employees had looked questioningly at their chef’s insistence that they close and lock up with that one customer left. She collected the printed contracts from her office, and a pen that she planned to sign them with after this conversation.
Finally she walked through the doors from the back of the restaurant to the front.
Leah rose at Clementine’s approach.
“Thank you for coming, Leah.” As far as Clementine knew, Leah had not taken on a last name at this point.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Ms. Johnson. I hope you understand that I drove into town this afternoon and hope to be on my way out after our conversation.” Meaning she had no intention of meeting with Clementine’s alpha or any of the other members of her pack if Leah could possibly help it.
“I understand completely.” And she appreciated it, too, since she rather thought everyone was better off avoiding that type of confrontation. “I’ll try to keep it short.”
They did not shake hands, but both sat down at one of the tables. Clementine put the stack of papers to one side for now. There was a short pause while Clementine considered, again, the best way to open this conversation. Leah’s lips twitched into a small smile, mocking but also honest, and offered, “how about I start by summarizing my offer?”
And that was what Clementine needed. She needed to hear the offer in a format that would let her hear truth and lies. Emails could lie, even legal contracts could lie, but with spoken words she could test the truth herself rather than rely on a lawyer. “Please.”
“In the past three months, forty-three female werewolves have tried to follow my example.” In Leah’s first email to Clementine, six weeks ago, the number had been twenty-seven. “Eleven of them are dead. Nineteen are currently confined. Thirteen have disappeared.”
It was more than Clementine had known about, but less than she had feared. It also just hadn’t been that long. A couple of months was only enough for the desperate and the wild to try their luck without any planning. More would make the attempt.
But one thing she knew, even if it hadn’t quite been a lie in Leah voice, “Thirteen have disappeared?”
“I’m fairly sure Bran knows more than he’s saying. He’s certainly the reason there aren’t more dead and fewer contained. And you know that nine of those missing werewolves have made it to me. I shared their emails with you and I’m also fairly sure you’ve had conversations with them that I’m not part of.”
Clementine nodded. “Yes. They’re pleased with the co-op you’ve helped them create. Though they’re worried that it might not be able to compete with the big box stores that have previously monopolized that community. At this point, they’re largely dependent on your patronage and you refuse to make pack bonds.”
Leah snorted. “The patronage will continue, as I prefer to have the Centre order through a co-op rather than through the corporations. And the lack of a pack bond will hopefully be answered by your presence. There has never been a female alpha to a pack before, but then again, there have never been female lone wolves before either.”
Clementine bit back her response to that. Most of werewolf history wasn’t documented, because they stayed in secret. Even documented history was often kept very coded. There was absolutely no way to confirm or refute the existence of previous female alphas or female lone wolves. While current werewolf doctrine claimed no female werewolf could be alpha, some evidence seemed to imply that some had. But that was not the point of this conversation and Leah believed what she said.
“I have known enough lone wolves to know what I am, and that I want to remain a lone wolf. But those nine, they need and want a pack. They’re already creating pack bonds with each other. If it weren’t for the constant threat of a male alpha trying to take over, I’d be interested in seeing what they made of themselves as an alpha-less pack. But they need someone to stand for them, to be their alpha. And I’m not it.”
For the most part, Leah spoke factually, laying out the situation, but that last sentence hinted at pain. Leah had been in the role of alpha-mate for two centuries and all it had gotten her was the desperate need to never be in that position again.
Clementine suspected that if Leah thought about it further, she’d realize she couldn’t be alpha again for purely symbolic reasons. She was the first documented female lone wolf and no one knew Leah’s actual dominance, aside from the Marrok himself, and possibly not even him. Leah had made sure it didn’t matter. If she stepped in as official alpha, suddenly it would matter again.
The symbol Leah had become couldn’t afford to reveal a level of dominance that put her anywhere in the hierarchy of werewolves.
“You’re not their alpha, but you are their patron and their protector. You have been enough for them.” Clementine kept her own words factual, knowing they’d be more comforting to Leah than any softness.
Leah jerked a nod of acceptance. “Thank you. But to go forward, they need an alpha. And you are the most dominant female werewolf in North America who is not mated to another werewolf.”
Clementine’s level of dominance wasn’t generally known, even inside her current pack where she presented herself as mid-range dominant. The Marrok had known, and turned a blind eye, so she wasn’t surprised that Leah was one of those who knew better too. She had learned over the years to downplay her dominance in werewolf society, while giving it free range when in command of her kitchens. Kitchens were an acceptable women’s domain, although it was rare for a woman, much less a woman of color, to be a top chef in a high-end restaurant. Even a hundred years ago, as a household cook, masters of the house tended to laugh and brag about her command of the kitchen as long as she was absolutely subservient outside of it.
Clementine nodded. “And I have the contract you sent me for ownership of the new restaurant near their new co-op. I’m prepared to sign it and to move there, but I do have a few more questions I need to ask first.”
“How much of this situation did you and the Marrok plan out together?”
Leah looked stunned at the question, which was actually interesting on its own. She opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Clementine was prepared to take the offer regardless of Leah’s answer, as long as it was the truth. If it was planned or not, the need was still there. Clementine just didn’t like being used as a pawn.
Leah finally spoke, but rather than answering, returned a question, “Why do you ask that?”
“Because the status of female werewolves has been increasingly unacceptable. Werewolf packs have always been more accepting of race differences than mainstream society, but much slower at accepting gender equality.”
It wasn’t even really that werewolf society was slow, but that it completely diverted from mainstream society when it came to women’s rights. Clementine had chosen to become a werewolf because it gave her protections that weren’t otherwise available to people like her even decades post-emancipation. The differences in how women were treated inside a werewolf pack versus outside had been inconsequential at the time. She’d made her peace with the situation and gotten on with her life. But now, mainstream society had changed so much, and werewolf society so little.
“If we’re supposed to be part of mainstream society now, the status of women should have been addressed decades ago. You’re not the perfect trial case for a female lone wolf, but you’re not a bad one, as long as the Marrok was willing to sacrifice his mate bond to the effort.”
Leah’s face looked progressively more pinched at Clementine spoke. It made her feel guilty, pointing out that maybe this woman had been sacrificed and manipulated by her own mate, but it was a scenario that Clementine had quietly wondered about. She’d never spoken of it to anyone else, though.
Leah took a deep breath and relaxed again. She raised her eyes from their focus on the tabletop to staring once more rather fixedly over Clementine’s shoulder. “I don’t know how much of this Bran planned. I was never part of those plans. To the extent of my knowledge, my actions were my own.”
There could be no hiding the bitter twist to those words, made worse by their truth. Clementine found herself sorry for introducing the seed of doubt, that maybe it was Leah who had been the pawn.
She couldn’t afford guilt right now, though, so she put that aside.
And there was one last question to ask, one that abated the guilt over the last one: “Rumor has it that you left the Marrok mated to a fifteen-year-old girl. Is that true?”
It was not public knowledge, or anything like it. Clementine wasn’t even sure how well known the situation was within the Marrok’s own pack; the friend she’d called had been extremely wary of saying anything even to Clementine. It really was just a rumor, and she half expected Leah to roll her eyes and deny it as one more layer of libel against her.
Instead Leah said, “Yes.”
Leah’s answer was stark and she sat with her chin raised, waiting for condemnation. It was the look of someone who’d made a hard call, still wasn’t sure it was the right call, but certainly didn’t expect others’ understanding of the complex situation. Clementine knew that response all too well.
She waited it out. Leah would explain further if not pressed.
Finally Leah sighed. “I couldn’t break my bond. But it turns out that I could transfer it. And Bran isn’t actually a monster, even if his wolf is messed up. He’d never have hurt Kara, and certainly not while Asil was around to protect her. Anyway, I’ve kept tabs. Their mate bond dissolved within a week. Bran didn’t even publicly acknowledge the loss of our mate bond until he could confirm he was not mated at all.”
“Okay. just out of curiosity, you’re keeping tabs on the Marrok’s pack? How?” She could understand being ruthless enough to use a teenage girl when necessary; and fifteen was older than she’d been when she’d first slept with a man. What she couldn’t understand was how Leah managed to have someone still talking to her from within that pack. That was crazy. Clementine’s own source had been extremely wary of sharing any information, and they’d been friends for decades.
Leah quirked another of her small smiles. “I do try to clean up my own messes.” A subtle gesture of her hands indicated their current situation, sitting together planning the creation of a female werewolf pack to take care of the women who’d followed Leah’s example. “I sent Kara a prepaid smart phone and asked her if she was okay.”
Clementine considered that for a moment and then returned a matching smile herself. “Well, that’s good.”
As if to ward off the possibility of a moment of empathy, Leah changed the topic abruptly. “Is there anything else you need to know or ask?”
Clementine shook her head and made certain to mask the pity she felt for this woman who so carefully protected her lone status, even as she tried to care for the people around her. Under other circumstances, Leah would have made an exceptional pack alpha. “No, you’ve answered all my questions. I’ll sign the contracts. You can take them back with you.”
She signed them in silence, carefully handing each page over to Leah for her review. The rental agreement for the new restaurant space. The liquor license. The small business form. And the silent partner agreement with Leah herself for the start-up funds to run the restaurant. Her lawyer had already reviewed them all. Clementine wasn’t sure how Leah had managed to get this all organized, but was just as happy to not know, really.
“It will take me three weeks to get down there. Two weeks for my notice and another week to pack and move. But I’ll be there and I’ll take care of the nine women already there and any others who show up. You won’t have to deal with them again, unless you want to.”
“I won’t want to.”
“I know.” Clementine did know. Maybe Leah would change her mind later, because all things are possible when you don’t age and refuse to die, but it wouldn’t be in any foreseeable future. “I’ll take care of them. And not for your sake. It will be for them. You don’t have to earn my protection of them.”
“But I do want to make you an offer.”
“I don’t want it.”
“It’s not an invitation into the pack. It’s this: if you ever want to discover how dominant you are, I’ll help you find out safely, without any consequences. Just to know. Because it doesn’t matter now, but it might later. Or you might just become curious.”
“It’s an open-ended invitation.”
And one that Clementine hoped that Leah would take. Both for her own sake and for the sake of Clementine’s own curiosity. But not now. “Right now, we are both way too busy. I need to get home and tell my boyfriend that we’re moving. And the restaurant owner that I’m leaving. And prepare for a discussion with my current alpha.”
“Will that be a problem?”
“I’ll find out tomorrow. But no, it won’t be the sort of problem that changes any of our plans.”
“Let me…,” Leah cut herself off. “I mean, good luck.”
“To us both. And safe travels to you. I’ll see you in three weeks.”
“I look forward to it.”