In this life, there are those I’d fight for without a doubt—my family, my pack, and a few close friends. No matter what they might need, I’d jump at the chance to help. I wouldn’t waste time with questions. When I’m needed, I act. It’s the kind of wolf I’ve always been. It’s how my parents raised me. Responsible. Virtuous. Each day, I rest with the assurance they’d do the same for me without any reluctance. But when it comes to laying down my life, there’s only one I’d die for without any hesitation. Without her, I’d die anyway.
I’ve loved the beautiful brown wolf since the first day I saw her shiny, chestnut hair and big brown eyes. Ninth grade. Falls Creek High. She sat across from me in first period English. I passed her a note and waited anxiously for her reply. Audra kept me waiting for a whole year. Teasing me. Smiling at me. Keeping her distance.
Our first date was on the night of a super moon. We ran side by side through the hills high above Falls Creek. And when we exhausted ourselves running, our hearts and souls melded in the moonlight. We’ve been together ever since.
Although I have yet to claim her, Audra has been my mate in every possible sense. She’s my partner. My better half. We opened Balls Up, a sports bar and grill, together. Our commitment to each other goes without saying. But my parents are getting older. They want to see the ring, the formal ceremony. They want grandpups. In all honesty, I want those things too.
Not years from now.
I don’t need anything extravagant. Just a small gathering with my parents—Audra’s died years ago in a car wreck—our two packs, and a few friends. I’m not some weak-ass male wanting frills and shit, but I do want to see my lady dressed in white, standing before all that is holy as we pledge ourselves to each other. I want to say the damned words. And I want to dance with her under the stars as husband and wife.
Is that so wrong?
I’ve looked forward to claiming her, officially, since high school graduation. The house with the picket fence, the pups, the whole nine… I’ve wanted it for a few years. Dreamed of it. Little girls with their mothers spunk and good looks. Little boys who enjoy adventure and hanging with their uncles—Brent, Brandon, and Brian. I imagine growing old with Audra in a house I’ll build for us with a huge deck to take in the night sky.
Audra hasn’t wanted any part of it though. She’s always had some excuse why we couldn’t make our relationship legal. Two years ago I proposed, but Audra claimed she wasn’t ready to settle down. A year later her parents died in a horrific accident, and she became alpha, superseding her complacent-ass brother.
When Audra moved in with me a few months ago, I realized I didn’t want to play house. I wanted the real thing. With her. So I set my plan in motion, all culminating tonight. I’m putting my best foot forward—wearing a black button-down shirt and black jeans, bought a new pair of boots, slicked my hair back with some styling product Audra bought me on my birthday, and trimmed my beard. Hell, I went all out and splashed on one of her favorite fragrances—Armani Sports Code.
I even closed Balls Up early—something I don’t normally do and customers hate—to set the mood. The sensual sounds of Romeo Santos fill the air instead of the usual sports noise blasting from the televisions. Placing a white linen tablecloth on a corner table, I picture Audra wearing my favorite red dress and heels. We’ll dance a sensual bachata before we dine, her curvy hips swaying to the rhythm, the seductive footwork, the body waves, the sweeping spins…
Be still my heart. And my dick.
Everything about tonight is for my love. Her favorite blood-red roses were delivered to the house thirty minutes ago. When Audra arrives, we’ll celebrate her heritage with her favorite meal—jerk chicken with rice, pigeon peas, and plantains. I even found a few bottles of Red Stripe beer. Just for her. Anything for her. After the food, we’ll celebrate us.
Thankfully, Audra doesn’t keep me waiting. At six o’clock sharp, the front door opens, while I’m lighting the candles, and she enters. Damn. She’s more gorgeous than the last time I saw her in the dress. I extend my hand, palm up. “Aw, sugar, you are stunning.”
Audra’s painted red lips lift as she places her hand in mine. “You don’t look bad yourself, baby. What’s going on?”
“Later.” It takes every fiber in me not to skip dinner. “Let’s eat for now.”
We eat to the backdrop of Maluma’s Corazón. Maybe I should pay attention to those lyrics. With Audra’s past behavior, the tune could be a sign of things to come.
While Audra eats her favorite dessert—rum cake I had a friend prepare—I seize the opportunity. Removing the small black box I’ve been carrying with me all day, I reach for Audra’s free hand.
She gasps. Her fork clatters as it hits the plate. I don’t pay heed to her reaction.
I probably should in case this is history repeating itself.
“Sugar, I love you. With each passing day, my feelings for you grow stronger. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Have pups with you. Grow old with you. Do me the honor, Audra Nichelle Nevers, and marry me.”
So far, so good. She hasn’t said anything. I open the box and reveal the pear-shaped diamond in a halo setting. I had the ring made for her. Last time I proposed, I didn’t have it. I was determined to do it right this time—the last time.
There aren’t any words of joy, and her mouth gapes open. Audra’s wide eyes take in the trinket. She runs a hand through her hair and stares at the ring like it’s a shock collar. I’m waiting for her to reach for the box, but she doesn’t. Instead she pushes away from the table, gets to her feet, and runs out of the room. Her heels sound like bullets punctuating the silence.
Not again, I think.
Closing the box, I shake my head. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Twice before. Maybe it’s a sign. Three strikes. I’m out of options. Maybe I should cut my losses. Move on. A smart wolf would, but I’ve never claimed to be logical when it comes to Audra. She’s all I want.
Rushing out of the room, I catch up with her in the office. “You’re turning me down? Again?”
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Like I said, we’ve been down this road. Each time we hit a dead end. Tonight, however, I don’t see an impasse. It’s more like a critical crossing. Whatever happens in this moment will taint our future. Distort it. Break it forever.
Choose your words carefully.
Audra stands with her back to me, lightly tapping her manicured nails against the wooden desk. It’s not music. Just nervous energy. “Must we keep going through this, Brady? How many times do I have to tell you—”
“It’s not the time.” Finishing the sentence for her, I scrub a hand over my beard. “What excuse are you giving me now? I’ve heard you’re not ready before. We’ve been together for too many years for you to keep using it.” I lift a finger. “Oh! There’s the classic one about your asshole brother. Got any new ones, Audra? I’m tired of hearing the bullshit.”
Not exactly the best words to use, but I’m all out of appropriate things to say. How many ways can I get her to see I want to move forward? We’re not pups anymore.
Audra faces me with watery eyes and shakes her head. “I hoped living together would have pleased you. I know it’s an excuse, but Greg really needs more time. He doesn’t know the first thing about leading the pack. My father wouldn’t have wanted me to jump into this.”
Jump into this? Is she kidding?
Tightness squeezes my throat and threatens to cut off my breathing, keeping me from saying something equally stupid. Shifting my gaze away from Audra, I rub the back of my neck. Every time I’ve done this, we’ve ended up fighting. Every. Fucking. Time.
Beings fight for love. They fight to be together. What about those who don’t want love? Wouldn’t they fight just as hard to stay apart?
Reality hits me so hard I lose my balance. This female I love more than my own life will never marry me. It’s not loyalty to her family holding her back. This is deeper. I should give it a rest. Either accept our relationship as it is or give it up. I want something more than this temporary status we share. I want… No, I need everyone to know this wolf is mine. Fuck everyone else! I need to know she’s mine.
“Why did you move in with me, Audra?” My eyes meet hers. “Knowing how I feel about you, why put me through it? Has this been a game to you?”
“No. I wouldn’t do that to you.” Her chin quivers, but the tears shining in her eyes refuse to budge. Just like her. “Brady, I love you. I always have and always will. We don’t need a ring or any public display to prove it.”
“Speak for yourself,” I say and walk around to my chair.
Yes, I’m being an ass. Unlike Audra, I make no excuses for my shitty behavior. I’m pushing for what I believe in. Love. Pure and simple. A future with the one I love.
Audra leans over the desk, giving me a glimpse of cleavage. Something I’d hoped to see more of tonight. “Do you want me to agree just to please you?”
For the first time in a long time, I scrutinize her. Really take a moment and get my fill of her. On the surface, the young female I fell in love with is still there. It’s only on close inspection I notice the cracks in the façade. She’s still so very beautiful, but her sense of obligation has hardened her. Audra doesn’t smile as much as she used to. Her eyes don’t sparkle like the stars anymore. How have I missed these changes?
To be honest, Audra has never done anything to please anyone but herself. I’ve loved her despite all her flaws. Despite all her shortcomings, I’ve been by her side. Now I’m forced to ask the question why.
Why would a wolf put himself through this agony? Why would he lay his heart on the line repeatedly to be trampled?
For love. It’s the only answer I have.
But is love enough? Will it sustain me? Keep me warm when she chooses the pack over me? Short answer? No.
Frankly, no alpha worth his soul would ignore the needs of the pack. It’s a balancing act. As long as the pack recognizes the wife of the alpha, he’ll never have to turn his back on her.
Maybe that’s what Audra’s reluctance is truly about. “Sugar, do you think marrying me means you have to give up the pack?”
She takes a deep breath. “I can’t be the wife of the alpha and an alpha.”
“You’ll never lose them. We’ll unite the packs. When Greg is ready, he can take over as alpha of the Nevers Wolves.”
Audra glances up at the ceiling. “You’re assuming I don’t want to be an alpha. I’m the first female alpha of my family. There aren’t many of us. I like the power that comes with my status. Why should I give it up?”
I don’t say it though. If I have to tell her, it’s not worth it. Turning my attention to the computer screen, I say, “Forget I asked.”
“Don’t be this way, Brady.” She pleads and comes up behind me. Her slender hands rest on my shoulders as she kisses my cheek. “Mmm, you smell good, baby. Let’s go home. It’s not often we get a whole night to ourselves. Imagine what we could do.”
Envisioning Audra’s beautiful tawny body beneath mine makes my dick twitch. The chemistry between us has always been explosive. Her stamina matches mine blow for blow. It’s only one of many reasons why I love this female. But at this moment, I’m not ready to give in. Sex won’t fix what’s wrong between us. Not this time.
“I have work to do.” I open my email and start scanning it for anything important. “You’re welcome to go without me.”
“Really?” Audra’s breath fans across my cheek as she sighs. “Is this what you had in mind tonight?”
I’m trying to be nice. Keep my mood to myself. But Audra has to push. She always pushes. Backing me into a corner. My fingers flex over the keyboard. Claws scratch at the surface as my wolf wants out. He’s looking for the confrontation—a chance to fight and then fuck. I just want a fight, but not with Audra. Never with her.
“Stop it, Audra!” I swivel on the chair and glare at her. My anger rises along with my voice. “Tonight was supposed to be a celebration for us! I planned on making love to you until the sun came up.” I push to my feet. “I thought we’d talk about our ceremony. What I had in mind was our future!”
Audra’s cheeks turn crimson, but she doesn’t go out so easy. Her wolf nudges forward. Stubbornness has her holding her chin high, pushing those slim shoulders back. “Are you blaming me for your fuck up?”
“My fuck up?” I drag a hand through my dark hair, messing up the perfect coif. “You turned me down, remember?”
“Because we don’t want the same thing.” Audra’s hand flies to her mouth as soon as the words slip out. Her admission stuns the both of us.
It may have shocked her, but it cut me. Cut me so damned deep I can’t stand. Pissed, I drop in my seat and start typing furiously. “Thanks for letting me know where I stand.”
I can’t look at her right now. Her words rock my mind. All I can see is red. Being in the same room is too painful, but I won’t leave. It’s my fucking office! “Go home, Audra, before we both say something we’ll regret.”
“Baby, I didn’t mean it that way,” she pleads. “You know I love you.”
Her words poke at me. Taunt me. Infuriate me. “Go. Home. Now.”
Why can’t she leave me be?
I slam my hand on the desktop. “Get the fuck out!”
The next thing I hear are doors slamming, and the roar of the engine as Audra’s car speeds out of the parking lot. Without a second thought, I reach into my bottom drawer and pull out a bottle of Stolichnaya and a double-sized rocks glass.
I’ve never raised my voice in anger with Audra. Sure, we’ve had our disagreements. Everybody does. One thing my grandfather taught me before he died was to never speak in fury to the one you love. Tomorrow is not promised to us. It’s why I keep proposing to Audra. Either of us… Both of us could die suddenly. Words would go unspoken. I want to make the most of what we have.
Filling the glass halfway, I think about Audra’s words. Because we don’t want the same thing. Since when?
Not once during the time I’ve known Audra, has she ever mentioned marriage other than to say no to it. I turn up the glass and realize that over the thirteen years we’ve been together she’s never even mentioned a future with me. Our being together is something she’s taken for granted.
I hoped living together would have pleased you.
Did she even want to live with me?
I reach for the bottle and fill my glass to the brim. Audra is the air I breathe. She’s the reason I wake up each day. She’s my sun, my moon, my stars. The world would cease to exist if she wasn’t in it.
Slowly, I drink the smooth vodka. As I savor the taste, questions fill my thoughts. What am I to Audra Nevers? Does she crave me when we’re apart? Does her heart forget to beat whenever I’m close? More importantly, if I were no longer in her life, would it matter? Would she feel my absence in her soul?
A small voice—a more rational one—tells me the answer to all those questions is a resounding no. I’m nothing special to Audra. Only thing left to do is numb my pain. Drown it. Forget it before it takes me under.