Part 2 of the Sneak Peek of Gabe’s Bride!
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Neoma is the low wolf. For years, she has lived under the cruel eye of Deacon, the Alpha of Scullamy. But when Deacon decides to attend the Bridal Hunt of long-time territory rival, Hollow Hills, hosted by its new Alpha, Colton Lauren, at last Neoma thinks she’s found a way to escape. All she has to do is enter to run, become the Bride of whomever is fast enough and strong enough to catch her, and so long as that male isn’t from Scullamy, then she and her son will finally be free. But on the eve of the Hunt, Deacon discovers what she’s done. Rather than suffer the disgrace of backing out of the Hunt, he orders Neoma to run…and to be caught by the new mate he’s assigned her.
When Gabe Michaelson learns that childhood sweetheart, Maya, has entered the Hunt, he joins as well, determined to bring her home as his Bride. But in the heat of the run, just as Gabe springs to catch her, Maya is knocked out from under him and the skinniest, scrawniest Scullamy female he’s ever seen takes her place. Robbed of the love of his life, Gabe has no choice but to accept Neoma as his Bride, but—Hunt or not—he vows never to forgive or forget what she’s done.
Everyone knows Scullamy isn’t to be trusted, but right from the start something about Neoma doesn’t fit Gabe’s preconceptions of what a Scullamy spy should be. She’s too skinny, too nervous, too…haunted, and with the shadow of Deacon never far behind her, gradually he comes to see there’s more to Neoma than anyone realizes. She needs him—she and Scotty both—in ways no one has ever needed him before. As the words ‘love’, ‘honor’, and ‘protect’ take on whole new meanings, Gabe realizes he has to find a way to cut Scullamy out of both their lives.
Before he loses Neoma forever…
Five years later…
“No!” Neoma bolted upright on the old army cot that had been her bed for four days now. Her heart thundered in the back of her throat. Sweat that had nothing to do with the heat of the day or lack of airflow within the army surplus tent, beaded her brow. She gasped once, swallowing back the rest of her cries while the remnants of her dream faded and the sights and sounds of where she actually was filtered back into awareness.
It was broad daylight and the next to last day of the Bridal Hunt that had brought the Scullamy volka out of their city, over the mountains and all the way to Hollow Hills. It had been a stressful four days. She was exhausted, hungry and her nerves were frayed. They frayed even more when she glanced at the cot beside hers and found it empty.
“Scotty!” Neoma fell over her worn shoes in the haste to get out of bed. She hit the tent flap, throwing it out of the way and startling the two women sitting in lawn chairs just outside. Both were young, with young children beside them: one had a toddler gripping onto her fingers, taking practice steps; the other, a frilly-dressed infant not quite able to sit up by herself. As close as the women were to Neoma’s own age, it was unlikely either child was their first, but young as they were, the Alpha Deacon would have made certain there were no mothers younger than this here. He was always cautious about the image Scullamy presented when the alphas of other packs were near.
Caught staring, the women quickly looked away, as if the social taint that had covered Neoma these last five years might somehow spread to them.
Neoma looked away too. She reined in her panic, schooling her expression to show none of what she really felt. What they thought of her wasn’t important anyway. Scotty was all that mattered, and right now, finding him mattered most of all.
The happy squeal of playing children pulled her attention out of the campground section Scullamy had claimed on Hollow Hills’ North Ridge. Nine packs had answered the call for a Bridal Hunt. Scullamy sat apart from them, the way Scullamy always stayed apart. But although there were no fences or razor wire here, everywhere Neoma looked it was still a prison. Guards patrolled, either alone or in casual-seeming pairs, along an invisible perimeter. But nothing was casual here. One had to be constantly aware of who was watching, who was listening, and who might be carrying tales back to Deacon’s ever twitching ears.
She had to find Scotty, before someone with eyes, ears and a wagging tongue noticed she wasn’t close by.
Putting her shoes on at the door, she tugged her t-shirt down over baggy jeans and knotted her hair in a ponytail so no one would be able to see how unbrushed it was. Their first night here, she’d traded her mother’s pearl-backed hairbrush for two corndogs once the rations had all been distributed and she realized she and Scotty wouldn’t be getting any. Neoma didn’t know why she was being punished again so soon. Oh, she knew why she deserved it, but if Deacon knew, the consequences would have been much worse than starvation. So, perhaps being out of the compound reminded him of the last time she’d escaped his reach—that one and only time five years ago. Or maybe it was Scotty, that constant reminder of the volka who had betrayed him. Or perhaps the Alpha Deacon was simply be in a mood to see her suffer. He often liked to do that.
In the last year especially, starvation had become his favorite method for reminding her how low in the social order she had fallen. It was an insidious punishment, as subtle as it was constant and gnawing. Perfect for public places, for who outside the Scullamy pack would even notice she wasn’t eating? And how long was it going to last this time—the duration of the trip, a week…forever? She honestly didn’t know, but thin to the point of gauntness already, neither she nor her son could afford to miss many meals.
But, Deacon didn’t know yet. If she was successful, he wouldn’t find out what she’d done until it was far too late to stop it. That was a mighty big ‘if’ though. One that was progressively making it harder for her to sleep.
Wending her way through the tight cluster of tents, Neoma avoided as many people as she could. Tainted as she was, no one would stop her or talk to her anyway. At least, that was what she thought, right up until she passed the last circle of tents before she reached the edge of the perimeter and old Elda Cullington—half blind, mostly toothless, still better fed than Neoma—looked up from her camp cookstove and the percolator of coffee she was tending for the sentries and said, “Heading out?”
Not unlike a rabbit confronted by a fox, Neoma froze. Why was Elda talking to her? Why was she looking at her, her rheumy gray eyes piercing her just a little too directly? She had to work to keep her voice every bit as casual as Elda’s question had been. “Just looking for Scotty.”
“Out playing tag n’ tackle with the other pups.” Elda nodded in the direction of the distant laughing shrieks. She stirred the coffee. “The Alpha was looking for you. I told him you were sleeping. He gazed on you for a while, then left again.”
It was too hot a summer’s day for the kind of cold that crept into her. “What did he want?”
“What does he always want with you?” Tapping the spoon twice against the side of the tin percolator, Elda looked at her again and waited.
Neoma’s mind raced. Did he know? The cold inside her spread. Wouldn’t he have wakened her if he did? “Thank you,” she whispered, and walked away from Elda just as quickly as her increasingly unsteady legs would let her. She had to find Scotty. She had to find him now.
Eyes were on her when she crossed the perimeter. She felt them the moment she left the Scullamy camp in favor of the carnival-like atmosphere the volka of Hollow Hills had provided. Food vendors were spaced all over the field, selling everything from elephant ears to onion bloomers, and even bacon-wrapped possum on a stick. A lot of people had tried those. She’d been rescuing partial portions from the garbage cans for days, but it was broad daylight now and too dangerous to go digging through the trash. It wasn’t food she wanted now anyway. She folded her arms over her empty midriff and kept walking.
Brightly colored pennants circled the children’s section of the Ridge, where matron mamas from all the packs kept careful watch. Neoma didn’t trust any of them, but there was no denying no one approached that play area without being seen. Not even her, and that made her feel better. That meant no one—not even an alpha—would walk away with a pup that wasn’t theirs, not for any reason much less revenge.
Neoma circled the outer edge of the pennant-dotted ropes, searching among the volka children until she finally spotted the one she wanted. Just another tumbling body in the rowdy mosh of puppies running, wrestling, nipping and tugging at the faux fox tails that were their play toy of the minute, he barely twitched an ear when she called to him. “Scotty! Come on, time to go!”
“We’ve got him,” a nearby matron called back to her. “Go. Have fun. Enjoy yourself.”
Her closed expression did not match the friendliness of her tone. One didn’t have to look hard to see the insult—Scullamy bitch—lurking behind those shuttered eyes.
Her nerves were too frayed for this. The urge to cross under the ropes and fetch her son away was almost more than she combat. It would be seen if she did. It would be wondered at, too. She couldn’t afford for people to talk. She definitely couldn’t afford for him to wonder. And it wasn’t Scotty’s fault anyway. It had been a long bus ride over the mountains, culminating in four days of just sitting beside her. That was too much to expect of any five-year-old filled to the brim with too much energy and excitement, and too little understanding of the very real danger he lived in.
Hugging herself tighter, Neoma shivered, despite the midday heat beating down on her between shady spots in the canopy of so many giant evergreens. One more day. Then, with any luck, neither one of them would have to live this way any longer.
“Peaceful place, isn’t it?”
Neoma ceased to feel the sun’s heat. She felt the prickles moving up her back as, footsteps as soft as any predator, Deacon walked up to stand at the ropes beside her. He cast his cool gaze across the crowded fields, studying the children at play.
“Once upon a time, Scullamy used to be peaceful,” he said. “Of course, that was back before the chevolak stole our land and lumber rights, cut down our forest, built their Air Force base and their Walmart right on our doorstep.” The Alpha drew a heavy breath as he tilted his face to the sun, seeming to enjoy the softness of the noon breeze. He still looked like somebody’s grandfather. He still terrified the hell out of her. “Now, you cannot hike your leg without pissing on a human. Not so here. I like it here.”
Did he know? She gripped the pennant rope between her hands, fighting to control her shaking. Did he even suspect?
“You entered the Hunt,” Deacon said gently and reached up to twist a lock of hair from her ponytail around his finger.
All solidity went out of Neoma’s legs. She almost dropped to her knees, her heart in her throat and beating so hard she was certain he could hear it.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, forcing herself to summon air enough to speak the words. “It’s just I am so lonely.”
His eyes did not soften, despite the cloying sympathy of his tone. “Of course you are. A woman your age, raising a son alone—an ache for companionship is only natural. I wonder, though, why you made your mark upon the entry page instead of signing your name. One would think you might be trying to hide your participation.”
She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t breathe. She fought to keep her mask of calm. “I didn’t want to shame us.”
Rare surprise crossed his features. He tipped his head. “Explain.”
“I barely found the courage to enter.” She didn’t have to lie about that part.
“Ah,” he sighed. “And now having done so, you fear you may lack the courage to run.”
It was a poor excuse and a wonder he bothered to pretend he believed it. But, he did.
“You should have come to me. Asked my counsel.”
“The insecurities of one low woman hardly seem worth my Alpha’s time and attention,” she said, her heart racing. “Especially at a time like this.”
“The welfare of even the most insignificant of my pack is always worth my time and attention,” he lied. Turning to face her, he gave her no choice now but to look on him directly. His eyes did not warm, not even when he released her hair to cup her chin, briefly caressing the pad of his thumb down the curve of her cheek. “You, little Neoma, have never been among my insignificants. It is my failing, I suppose, that you do not know this.”
She swallowed hard, scrambling to find some way to answer that, but with a blink he abruptly turned away.
“Walk with me.”
It was not a request.
Legs wobbling, Neoma cast a last look back at Scotty only to spot Alaric on the far side of the children’s field. He was looking straight at her.
There were too many matron mamas from too many other packs for him to do anything and she knew it, but she felt the panic anyway. And still, when the Alpha walked away, she followed him. Away from the children’s section to the roped-off field where the bridal games were in aggressive play. The men had had their chance the day before. Today, it was the Brides’ turn and they were out in full pack force. Rough and tumble football was an easy means by which to display their strength, speed and ferocity, and no one was holding back. Even Joela, the Deacon’s daughter, was on the field. Her closest pack mates shielded her from the brunt of most tackles, helping her look her best. But then, Joela had always been beautiful—all long blonde hair, slender limbs, and high full breasts. To watch her, laughing and tossing her hair each time she brought a member of another pack to the ground, one would never suspect her of being anything but another prospective Bride, vying for the attentions of the alpha hosting this Hunt: none other than the Alpha of Hollow Hills itself. All Neoma could see, though, was Deacon. Every inch as ruthless as her father, Joela didn’t scare Neoma as much as he did.
“What are your thoughts on the Alpha Lauren?” Deacon asked unexpectedly.
Neoma glanced across the fairgrounds, past the games of ring toss, porta-potties and food vendors, back to where the Brides were competing and the crowd of prospective mates and their packs were thickest.
It was a good turnout for a Hunt. Males outnumbered the would-be Brides three-to-one, but it was the last day of the games. By morning those odds would grow even further apart with latecomers trickling in all through the night. The volka of Hollow Hills must be very proud to have so many other packs attending.
Among those gathered along the ropes, talking to two other males and watching the competing women from the corner of his eye, was the Alpha of Hollow Hills: Colton Lauren, dark hair, sun-bronzed skin, the honeyed-amber of his eyes missing nothing of the game taking place. Every inch of him was a male in his prime, practically poured into the tan Fish and Game uniform he wore. He seemed friendly enough, offering a word or a nod to just about everyone who stopped to speak with him. Each time his gaze found a Scullamy volka, however, the glimmer of open friendship in his eyes closed like the slamming of a physical door.
“He scares me,” she admitted. She didn’t have to lie about that either.
“That’s because he knows he will not hold his alphaship long enough to plant a pup in the belly of the bitch he Claims.” Deacon glanced across the field and, as if sensing his gaze, the Alpha Lauren turned to meet it. “Do you harbor hope that the bitch he Claims might be you?”
Neoma shuddered. “No.” If rumor could be believed, the Alpha Lauren wasn’t looking for a volka Bride, much less a Scullamy one. From the very first, his sights had been locked on the only chevolak on the Ridge. Neoma hadn’t seen her yet, but she’d caught the woman’s scent once or twice while pilfering food late at night. When she caught whiff of her during the daytime, Neoma had always been careful to walk the other way.
Apparently, her Alpha had heard the same rumors she had. “Hollow Hills will need to be purged before we move in, but there’s plenty of time for that later. I understand his first lieutenant is also running. Michaelson, I believe his name is. From what I have seen, his attention is more appropriately fixed upon the volka ladies. What do you think of him?”
Neoma gave the man standing at the Alpha Lauren’s right a quick glance. Only slightly shorter and perhaps a little broader in the chest, his sandy brown hair was lighter and shorter than Colton’s. She had been careful to avoid him too. She had no idea what color his eyes might be, but he wore the same uniform as his Alpha, with a badge upon his chest and a utility belt complete with gun—Neoma shuddered all over again. He seemed more ready with a smile, but only when laughing, talking, and dealing with volka from anywhere but the Scullamy side of the Ridge.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Deacon soothed. “I count four strong packs in attendance here. Six if you consider the Nabesny or Patoka as ‘strong’…or even as packs. Debatable, I know, but any of their males might Claim you. If you run.”
If? Everything inside of her sank. “Do you want me to withdraw?”
“I don’t think I could bear for you to run.” He sighed. “What if you were taken by someone other than a Scullamy? You and poor, young Scotty would be taken far, far away from me. Is that what you want?”
With all her heart.
“Never.” Her voice shook, and she couldn’t breathe. Her heart was choking her, preventing her from swallowing. She stopped where she was. “I’ll withdraw immediately.” She snapped around. She would have run, but his hand clamped onto her arm, staying her.
“Don’t be hasty,” he said. “People are scrutinizing our every move as it is. To withdraw now, one day before the Hunt, would not paint us in a favoring light. They will call you a coward at best, and at worst, honorless for not keeping the promise you made when you put your mark upon that registry. That shame will reflect on all of us.”
Her skin crawled where he touched her. “What do you want me to do?”
She couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Across the field, another bone-cracking tackle sent a cheer through the watching crowd. She felt sick.
Deacon leaned in to her, breathing in her frightened breaths, and smiled. “I want you to walk with me,” he said, the paternal warmth of his voice never once reaching as far as the ice of his eyes. “Walk.”
She didn’t think she could, but over the encouraging shouts of the crowd and cries of the combatants, the laughing, talking and bartering of the vendors hawking their wares, and all the other volka packs milling among the tents set up across the Ridge above the sleepy town of Hollow Hills, Neoma thought she heard the yips of the children, running in both their human and puppy forms. Matron mamas called encouragement, making games out of hunting and tracking and mock battles that once upon a time had been so important for volka living hidden among humans. Scotty was with them. Safe for now, but safety was such a fragile illusion, especially when it came to children.
Falling into step once more beside the Alpha she feared above all others, Neoma let him take her out of the crowd, beyond the watchful eyes of anyone who might otherwise intervene, and back into the wooded area where Scullamy had staked their temporary camp. She felt the watching eyes when she crossed the perimeter back into the sentries’ militant keeping, every one of them absolutely loyal to Deacon’s smallest whim. Mostly because he accepted nothing less, but also because he bought it from them with things that had not been done in hundreds of years.
Providing members with a place to live was a fairly standard practice among most packs who actively recruited soldiers, but Scullamy was the only place she’d ever heard of that kept volka-only apartments and doled out units like a privilege. Fresh from the Scruff or other packs, new recruits lived in common barracks, while lower ranking soldiers received small one-bedroom apartments. Higher ranking soldiers got bigger, roomier dwellings. Some, like the Alpha’s lieutenants lived in houses, two stories, with flowerbeds and the luxury of grassy lawns where their children could run and play. She’d had that once. It seemed a whole lifetime ago.
The days of rewarding loyalty with horses was long gone. Cars and motorcycles were Deacon’s first reward of choice these days. And as far as she knew, Scullamy was the only place that still practiced the old pravica do sre: the right to wed. Nothing settled a male fresh from the Scruff faster, Deacon was fond of saying, like a Bride. In Scullamy, they were passed out, much like apartments. Neoma had been two weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday when Deacon rewarded Matson with her. Less than a year later, she’d given birth to Scotty. And now, here she was again, that familiar knot of dread tightening in her stomach as she followed her Alpha across the wooded glade, past the widows’ tents to those assigned for potential new recruits.
New recruits were always welcome in Scullamy—especially if they were hardened, accustomed to fighting, and not at all shy about doing whatever might be required with no questions asked. She’d been fortunate with Matson. Rough around the edges, her mother had called him, but he’d never beaten her. That was more than some females in Scullamy could say.
It might be more than she would be able to say after this, too. A man stood outside the recruit tents, sauntering a lazy pace back and forth, staring at the dirt around his scuffed boots. He looked like a biker—worn leather chaps over equally worn jeans, off-white t-shirt stretched tight over a lean but powerful frame. His shoulder-length hair was muddy blond and his eyes when he finally noticed their approach, were as gray as stone. The knots inside her tightened as she drew nearer. When he tipped his head, dragging his assessing stare all the way down and then back up her again, her knees tried to buckle.
“This is Wayman,” Deacon introduced. “He is the latest to join our little family, and I wish to reward him for all the future service he’s going to give me. You will be a good mate for him, I think, and he will be a good role model for our young Scotty. After all, we would not want him to grow up following in his father’s seditious footsteps. Far better it would be if he did not grow up then at all, don’t you think?”
Her knees did buckle then. She might have dropped but for the Alpha’s hand, catching her elbow and holding her steady while his breath caressed her ear. “You are still my ever-obedient Neoma, are you not? Stiffen your back, child. Fortitude. Summon the dregs of what courage it took to sign your mark upon the registry and do now as your Alpha commands. Give him your hand.”
Screams from the past melded with the shouts from the field. The fresh smell of grass and trees, cooking meat flavoring the summer wind…Matson’s blood still hot in her nose after all these years.
Neoma put out her trembling hand. Her fingers looked positively bony compared with Wayman’s.
Wayman noticed. “Kind of scrawny,” he said, his thin mouth curving upward as he looked her over. Those stone gray eyes drifting back to her face, he then turned to Deacon and nodded. “Yeah, okay. She’ll do.”
“Excellent.” Smiling at them both, Deacon passed her arm to Wayman. “I’ll leave you lovebirds to get acquainted.” He started to turn away, but stopped. “Oh, there is one slight problem. Neoma was lonely. She signed up to run in the Hunt. You’ll need to deal with that first thing in the morning.”
Wayman’s smile became a grimace.
“Well, it’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it?” Deacon mused. “To enter a Bridal Hunt. To be competed for and eventually brought to ground by the mate of her dreams—a man of passion and virility.”
That Wayman wasn’t happy at the thought of expending so much effort to prove he was that mate was etched into every hard angle of his unsmiling face.
“Consider this a test, as well as the first request your Alpha makes of you.”
Except that it wasn’t a request, and no one was fool enough to mistake it for one.
It was almost imperceptible, the lift of Wayman’s chin and subtle flash of throat as he conceded to the older volka’s wishes.
“Good.” Deacon nodded. “In the meantime, you have all the hours between then and now to become better acquainted.”
“Scotty—” Neoma hedged. She took her hand back from Wayman, but she may as well have been caught in quicksand for all the further she could extricate herself.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “Both I and now our new friend, Wayman, are dedicated to ensuring your son be very well cared for.”
He waited only long enough to be sure she had no other objections, and then Deacon walked away, leaving her alone with the new mate she had just been assigned.
He broke the silence first, his chuckle bearing more disgust than mirth. “I have to fucking run for you?”
Neoma looked at him, not realizing her hands had become fists until she felt the pain of her nails biting into her tender palms.
“I’ll bet the house he promised ain’t nothing but a travel trailer, huh?” Shaking his head, Wayman made up his mind anyway. Tipping his head toward the tent, he said, “Get inside, then. Let’s see if your bony little ass is worth it.”
She’d been so close. So close to getting out. Hungry, tired, and now depressed, Neoma did as she was told.