The Return: Chapter Nine
Parker’s Note: I am SO sorry! It’s been a rough week here, and I’m behind on everything. Please accept my apologies for the lateness.
The next morning, I sat at my desk and started to go through the website Jonas had given me and found a woman in town who made pillows, down comforters, and the like. As I scrolled through the pages, it struck me. It was like another door opened I didn’t even know had been closed. The site was filled with colorful creations the people in town were sharing with everyone else. I found hammered-metal wind chimes that I’d seen in town, but never knew where they came from. There were also the most dazzling paintings, books written by people I knew, and blown glass works. I saw myself spending way too much time and money here.
“What kind of pillow do you like?” I asked Matt as he sat on the sofa, his hands folded in his lap.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
It was hard not to growl at him. Every time I asked a question, Matt’s answer was the same. It didn’t matter. Whatever I thought was best.
I’d had enough.
“You’re going to be sleeping on them, so you have a say in what you’re getting.”
He swiveled on the couch and turned pleading eyes in my direction. “But you said you were paying for them, so it should be your choice.”
“And I’m asking for your input.”
He huffed out a breath. “I’ve never been on an assignment where anyone asked me my opinion. I was the driver, seen and not heard. I’m supposed to be quiet unless it’s important.”
Oh. Now I understood a little better. “It’s important,” I informed him. “I don’t want you waking up with a crick in your neck from not getting good sleep.”
That made him snort. “Do you know where I sleep when I’m on assignment? Usually in the nearest park, under a tree. I… don’t like enclosed places. I prefer to sleep outside, where I can see the stars.”
“But you said the car—”
“Because if I said I was sleeping outside, you’d probably get upset, and I didn’t want that.”
Not upset, no, but I would have tried to change—oh. “Look, I know you don’t know me, and I admit I don’t know you. At least not yet. Taking care of people is part and parcel of who I am. Jonas says it’s what makes me an Alpha Mate. I don’t like the idea of you sleeping outside, not because you’re a wolf, but because you’re a man. And I like people having a roof over their heads. If you’re happier outside, I’ll set something up in the backyard and you can sleep there.”
He was quiet for a few moments. “Would you really do that?”
“Yes, in a heartbeat,” I vowed.
His shoulders slumped. “I don’t like sleeping indoors,” he said quietly. “But if it makes you happy, I’ll do it.”
I sat next to him and put a hand on his. “This isn’t about my happiness, Matt. It’s about what makes you happy and comfortable. I can tell you try really hard to please everyone, but in my case, you don’t need to do that. What would be right for you?”
“I like seeing the stars,” he said again. “My wolf enjoys it too.”
“Then I’ll take care of it,” I promised. “I’ll have it ready before tonight.”
His eyes widened. “Oh, but—”
“Before tonight,” I reiterated.
His cheeks pinked. “Thank you. What can I do?”
“Watch TV? Take a nap? Get a snack? What do you feel like doing?”
His lip jutted out. “This doesn’t seem right. I’m supposed to be your driver.”
“And that’s cool and all, but we’re not in a car, so those rules don’t apply.”
The grin started off slowly, but in the end, it was bright and cheery. “You know what I really want to do? I’d love to shift and go out to the park and roll around in the grass. It’s been ages since I had time to do that.”
“Go on then. Roll to your heart’s content.”
“If he needs you, I’ll call,” Kinsey said, stepping into the room.
“If you’re certain.”
Matt got up, and I could see he was practically vibrating. “I think I’m going to be happy with this assignment. I hope it lasts.”
With that, he rushed out the door, slamming it behind him.
“You’re being too familiar with him,” Kinsey said.
I turned to face him. He stood there, his lips curved into a frown. “And you’d prefer, what? I should be cold like the other people he’s worked for? Not happening.”
Kinsey sighed. “We’re employees of the Council. Matt knows that he can’t be running off and leaving you. If you have to go somewhere, he should be here, ready to—”
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“What? No, of course I’m not.” He stood near me, one hand gripping his wrist in front of him. “It’s the life we lead. We don’t get to pick and choose.”
“That sucks ass, and not in the fun way.” I chuckled. “Guess maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit.”
“Don’t go against the Council’s wishes. That won’t end well.”
“Like I said, I’m not a werewolf, so they don’t have any say over me.”
“And as Matt tried to tell you the other day, you’re considered pack, and as such, you are going to be bound by the same rules as the rest of us. I’m sure Alpha Brodie told you the hierarchy of the packs. The Council makes the rules—we obey them. That’s how it works.”
I wanted to argue, but what if he was right? Would my fussing change anything? Hell, would it make Jonas look bad? For them it was business as usual, but for me it was uncharted waters. Still, I wasn’t one to back down.
“Matt is a nice guy, and I don’t like him sleeping outside without some kind of shelter. If the Council wants to bitch about that, then so be it. It’s my decision, and I’ll accept the consequences if there are any.”
“Alpha Brodie won’t let them come after you. He’ll be the one who takes any punishment.”
Fuck. “That’s bullshit.”
He shrugged. “It’s the way of the pack. Our Alphas guide us, and they do their best to instill values. They also protect us. No one will hurt a pack member if the Alpha knows about it. Once I was on an assignment where a pack member got into a fight with a human. That’s a big no-no, and the Council laid down the law quickly. He was to be whipped. His Alpha reminded them of the law, stating that she would take his punishment.”
“We do have female Alphas. The strongest leads, and many of our females take zero crap from anyone. Anyway, she was restrained between two posts, and the guy who broke the law? It was his responsibility to whip her.”
No way. “That’s insane. It’s fucking barbaric!”
“I won’t disagree, but look at it from the Council’s standpoint. This man had to stand there and whip someone, he had to watch her bleed. He had no idea how to do it and made a mess of her back and legs. The thing is? Beyond a grunt when the lash connected, she never cried out or made any other sound.”
“Is she okay?”
Kinsey pursed his lips. “She was a mess. Even though shifters regenerate faster, it took almost two months before the damage was healed. During that time, she still did her job every day. That’s the difference between an Alpha and anyone else. They know their role, and they’ll do whatever they have to in order to fulfill it.”
I drew in a sharp breath. It would do me no good to argue with Kinsey, because he’d lived with this kind of thing his whole life. For me it was like the Prime Directive; don’t try to change the culture of another race.
“Message received. I’ve got to get started on this thing for Matt.”
As I went by him, Kinsey put a hand on my arm. “Don’t get too wrapped up in the lives of people who aren’t your wolves. Me and Matt, we’re here at the discretion of the Council. Tomorrow they could move us somewhere else. What you’re doing might seem noble and all, but Matt is… special. He’s a good man, but not a strong wolf, and I don’t want to see him get hurt.”
“How is this going to hurt him?”
A sigh. “You’re going to get him used to being treated a certain way, and when others don’t do it, that’s going to make things worse for him.”
“Oh.” I never thought about others not treating him decently. I mean, really, how hard was it not to be an ass? “I promised,” I said quietly. “I can’t go back on it now. If he hasn’t been treated well by others, and might not be in the future, then this is even more important. It’s a reminder he deserves to be cared for.”
A shake of the head. “You’re going to end up hurt, and so is Matt. I can guard your body, but even I can’t stop when you end up heartbroken.”
He turned and left the room, leaving me to ponder his words.
I picked up my phone at least a dozen times. I wanted to call Corey, to hear his voice, to ask him how his day was going. Instead, I was on the laptop talking with the Council. And they had a lot to say.
“When your father was in charge, he—”
“My father is stepping down in a few days, but he’s still in charge. If you want to talk with him, then do so. If you want to talk with the guy who’s going to be the Alpha, then I’m your man.”
“Yes, but Jonas, we—”
“I’m not about to debate this,” I said, doing my best to inject authority in my voice. “My mate doesn’t want to live at the pack house. He has a job, a life.”
“He’s pack, isn’t he?” chimed in another voice. “He does as he’s—”
“I’m sorry, have you met my mate?” I held up a hand to silence anything they were about to say. “No, you haven’t. None of you bothered to get to know him while I was… gone.” And that’s what pissed me off more than anything. “In his mind, he’d done something and I got taken away, but did anyone go to him and explain? No.”
“Because if he had known, he would have tried to find you. I think you know that as well as we do.”
I didn’t bother to tell them he’d scoured the town doing that very thing.
“That’s not the point. When my father accepted him as pack, you all were fine with it. Then he had to pull me out for meditation and deep training, and you all left Corey spinning in the wind. Someone should have talked to him at some point, just as you would have a wolf who needed guidance.”
There was sputtering and finger pointing, but I’d made my point. Everyone, my father included, failed Corey and… no. I had to be fully honest here. I was on that list too. I’d failed Corey by not being able to contain my anger. The whole incident was clear in my mind, and I was equally to blame. My first thought should have been for my mate. Comforting him, not trying to get even.
“I bear the blame as well,” I told the Council. “We all do. The only one who isn’t at fault is Corey, and I think we have to acknowledge that.”
The denials trailed off. “What would you have us do?” Council member Yawen asked.
“We—all of us—left my mate hanging out to dry. Now he wants something that is within your power to grant. I don’t think he’s asking too much. He has Kinsey there, and Matt is always nearby. His shop is already the hub of pack activity, so it isn’t going to be as though they can’t find him if they need to see him.”
“This is highly irregular,” Council member Delray murmured, as she glanced at the stack of papers before her. I knew it was posturing, but that didn’t mean I would back down on this.
“So is a human pack member,” I shot back. “And it’s this, or we admit we wronged him. Which do you think is going to be easier to stomach?”
The Council stared at each other, as though they were speaking psychically, and then they called a recess. I had no idea which way they’d decide, and I hated the thought that I’d have to tell Corey they wouldn’t budge from their position.
While they deliberated, I opened up the file that listed Corey’s holdings. He had sixty-two thousand dollars saved from his schooling, and over a hundred thousand from the property and refurbishment of his shop. That would be a tidy nest egg for him, or allow him to expand if he chose to.
It sucked that for some of the most important moments of Corey’s life, I wasn’t there to share in his joy. The anger that had always churned in my gut returned. Fucking Adam. If he—no. I had to cut off that line of thinking. I wasn’t sixteen anymore, and I needed to stop blaming my failures on someone else.
The tone from the computer startled me, but I clicked the icon to answer the call. As expected, it was the Council. I clenched my hands under the table as I awaited their verdict.
“We have discussed it, and though we are loathe to do so, we acknowledge our failure when it came to your mate. For that we do most sincerely apologize. It’s our understanding that your father is the one who sent him to school?”
“And also got him his business startup money.”
“We feel that this is a good start, but only a start. We have wronged your mate—our pack member—and we agree with you. It is not too much to ask for him to stay in Harken’s Corners. As you stated, his bodyguard and driver will be there should they be needed. Therefore, you have our blessing.”
Decorum kept me from pumping my fist, but damn, how I wanted to. Corey was going to be happy, and that made me ecstatic.
Well, that didn’t sound good. I girded myself for whatever they were about to say.
“We want to visit the coffee shop. See how your mate deals with his pack.”
So now they were vetting Corey? Fuck that.
“Then that’s something you should have done in the last six years, don’t you think? You haven’t even been following up on him. Would you let any wolf go out into the human world without checking on them from time to time? This is, pardon my language, bullshit.”
They waited until I settled down a bit, then grinned at me.
“No, Jonas. That’s not what’s happening here. We discussed the fact that we needed to be more aware of all of our packs, and what they’re doing with their lives. We let Corey slide under the radar and never gave a thought as to whether he was integrating well with your wolves. Any failure is on us, not him. Instead, we want to visit the shop to try out these choux buns we keep hearing about.”
“And if it gives us a chance to apologize, then we’ll be grateful for it. Though moving forward, you cannot use this as an excuse when we say something needs to be done. We won’t change our mind about Corey not moving to the pack house, but if we decide something else has to happen, it will. Are we understood?”
That was far more than I’d hoped for. “Yes, understood. And thank you.”
“Don’t thank us. We failed, and we’re going to try and start the process to correct it. That’s all.”
“Understood. When should I tell Corey to expect you?”
“Monday morning at nine. There will be the three of us, plus our entourage. Please have him make enough for twelve people.” Yawen turned his head and looked at Delray, then over to Entwhile. “We stand adjourned. Jonas, we will see you Monday.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you so much!”
But they were already gone. Now I had to figure out how to tell Corey they were coming. That should go well.