THE STONE COLD WOLF'S REJECTED MATE
I hide in the shadowed corner of the supply shed, my heart pounding, waiting for Clay. I shouldn’t be doing this. He’s not my mate.
If Father knew, he’d send me to work with my sisters in the kitchens. Well, first he’d send me to the forest to pick a switch, but then it’d be off to the kitchens. No more hauling buckets of mortar for the males repairing the moat wall. No more days spent in the shade of the scaffolding, sneaking glances at Clay as he works above me in silence, shirtless and sweating in the sun.
I hear his deep voice in the courtyard, and I swallow hard. Inside my chest, my wolf pops to her feet, her ears perking. Clay is talking to other males, or rather, other males are talking to him, and he’s replying in sharp grunts. He’s not a talker. I can probably count the words he’s said to me since I started working on the wall.
Sit down before you pass out.
You help me now. No one else. When you’re not fetching a bucket, sit in the shade.
Drink this water.
When you drop off the buckets in the shed today, wait for me there.
Give me your mouth.
Hush. They’ll hear you.
All we’ve done is kiss, but that would be enough to trigger my heat if he were my mate, so he must not be. I try not to be heartbroken. Fate knows what she’s doing. We’re all her servants, and we cannot help but obey. At least that’s what Mama always says.
But I do wish Clay Pulley was mine, more than I’ve ever wanted anything. He’s terse and surly, and I’ve never seen him smile, let alone laugh, but he’s always patient and gentle with me.
Once, when I brought him a bucket of mortar that had already dried past usefulness, he didn’t even yell. He told me to sit and rest, and he trekked all the way back up the long stairs to the supply shed for a new bucket. That was the day he told me to wait for him. The day he kissed me for the first time.
I should have told him no or run away. That’s what a good female would do. But I let him, and in the end, he was the one who pulled away first. I faked sick the next day, I was so embarrassed, but Father wouldn’t let me stay home a second day. Ditches work or we don’t eat. He’s drilled it into our heads since we were pups.
I wish I wasn’t a Ditch. If I could have gone to the Academy at Moon Lake, I would’ve learned botany like the Fields do, and I’d be much further ahead on my secret plan. Trial and error takes forever with plants, but if the female alpha of Quarry Pack can make her own money selling mushrooms and herbs, I can do it, too, and if I can grow weeds, one day, I can grow something I can sell.
That’s far in the future, though, and right now, my wolf scents trouble in the air.
Outside the shed, the voices fall silent, but Clay still doesn’t join me. I’m starting to feel foolish. If someone else comes in, I don’t know how I’ll explain myself. Except for stacks of empty buckets, a crate full of trowels, and a row of wheelbarrows, there’s nothing in here.
Maybe he’s been called away to go with the Claws again. They’ve been coming around to talk to him since the fight with John Broom. That was all an accident. John dropped a putty knife from his scaffold, and the handle clipped me on the shoulder. Clay turned into his wolf so quickly, leaping up and knocking John off his platform and into the dirt, it was almost like he flipshifted. No one can do that except Killian Kelly from Quarry Pack, though.
Maybe the Claws have convinced Clay to join them. He should. It’d be a huge step up in rank. He’d be stupid not to do it. Three meals a day instead of two. A room of his own in the Claws’ bunkhouse.
My heart sinks at the thought. No more kisses. No more company on the walk home. He’s been following me to my house to make sure I get there safely, ever since I got winged by the putty knife, and he told me that I’m only supposed to help him. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the attention. Even though we can’t talk or walk side by side, it’s nice knowing he’s behind me.
In the shed, a wheelbarrow shifts, and I startle. I can’t hang out in here anymore. It’s getting weird.
I duck through the low door, out of the dimness into the glaring late afternoon sunshine. The cobblestone lanes and narrow houses of North Border rise above me, and down below, the river runs lazily along the bottom of the moat wall like a slow, green snake.
To my surprise, Clay is still here. He’s standing with three Claw males, and his face is stormy. My adrenaline kicks up, and my wolf whines inside my chest. It’s never good news when a male is angry.
Even though I step softly and keep my head bowed like a good female, all four males turn to look at me when I venture further out into the packed earth yard. Clay’s wolf rumbles deep in his chest and mine lowers herself to her belly, watchful and poised to run. There’s danger here.
I don’t know what to do. I have no reason to stand here since the working day is done, but with four packmates staring me down, all of whom outrank me, I can’t move. My legs won’t do it.
“That’s the female,” one of the Claws says. “She’s called Wrenlee.” His name is Isaac, and I don’t know how he knows me. I’m a middle child in lowly Ditch family. We don’t even have a second name.
I shrink in my brown linen shift while my wolf presses herself as flat as she can. She even lowers her ears. Females are supposed to avoid male attention, and I might be bold enough to meet Clay, but she doesn’t have a rebellious bone in her body.
Clay says nothing, but his broad chest rumbles like a rock tumbler.
Eldrick, the highest-ranking Claw, steps toward me in his heavy black boots. Clay steps forward with him. My wolf doesn’t know whether to be comforted or alarmed.
“Is she your mate?” he asks Clay, sneering down at me, his harsh lip curled.
It feels like a hand seizes my throat. The question rings out in the clearing. For the first time, I notice the other Ditches hanging around, gawping without an ounce of shame. My face bursts into flame. Father is going to hear about this, and my name is going to be dirt.
My pulse pounds in my ears. I know what Clay will say, and it feels like I’m slip-sliding down a wet slope, my heels digging uselessly in the mud while my arms flail for handholds that aren’t there.
We aren’t mates. When a male kisses his mate for the first time, she goes into heat. Everyone knows that, and Clay is too proud to lie.
“No, she’s not.” Clay answers, his face closed and hard.
“Well, she meets him in the shed. That sweaty one has seen her.” Isaac gestures at my creepy cousin Emmett.
All the blood in my body whooshes to my feet. I clutch my smock and squeeze it in my tight fists. I don’t know why. My brain isn’t working my body.
“But she’s not your mate?” Eldrick raises his eyebrows.
Clay jerks his head. “No.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Eldrick asks, dismissing me in an instant.
“I build. I don’t fight.”
“You fought John Broom,” Eldrick argues. “You flipshifted.”
“I’m telling you—you’ve got it wrong. You’re listening to bonfire stories.”
“Amir saw it with his own eyes.” Eldrick jerks his chin toward the third Claw who nods in agreement.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m a Ditch. I build.”
“If I take the matter to Alpha Uphill, you won’t have a choice. Ditch don’t get this kind of opportunity. You’re a fool to throw it away for a female who isn’t even your mate.” Eldrick talks like I’m not even standing here so close that their noses are turning up from the stench of my anxiety.
“If you’re worried about pussy, plenty females give it up when you start winning on the circuit. Hot females. With rank.” Isaac sneers down at me.
Father is going to hear that, too. From the corner of my eye, I can see Emmet moving his lips like he’s trying to memorize what’s being said, word for word. He’s not even bothering to conceal his glee. He loves it when the females in the house get the switch. He always tries to watch and disappears into the privy afterwards.
My stomach knots. I’m in deep trouble. My wolf and I both instinctively look to Clay for help, but he’s glaring Eldrick down. Eldrick is the largest Claw, at least six foot tall and two hundred and fifty pounds, but before Clay’s people have been Ditches for generations, and our rank breeds bigger.
Eldrick’s chest begins to rumble, too, and he draws back his thick lips to show off his descended fangs. Claws never retract their teeth. It’s meant to frighten folks into baring their necks, and it works. I duck my head.
Clay’s wolf snarls.
“I said I’m not interested,” Clay says. He has to project so that he can be heard over his wolf.
For a moment, the reek of aggression is so thick in the air that I’m certain there’s going to be a fight. The gawkers shuffle backwards and mutter among themselves. They’re probably placing bets.
But then a light sparks in Eldrick’s bulbous eyes. “I would think again if I were you, Ditch,” he says to Clay. “If I were you, I would consider the going rate for a night fireside and what it would mean to turn down the lifestyle we’re offering you.”
I can’t follow all of what Eldrick’s saying, but the words land on Clay like a blow. His entire body hardens—his shoulders, his jaw, and finally, his dark brown eyes. A muscle at his temple pulses.
For a second, he lifts his gaze to the steep slate rooftops high above us rising out of the dense green of the border forest. Past the rooftops, in the meadow between the town and the woods, is the bonfire where the pack gathers on the full moon.
Is he thinking about what a seat fireside is worth to him? All the males I know would kill for it.
His jaw tightens, he blinks, and refocuses on me. Clay’s a Ditch, through and through, so his face doesn’t give anything away.
That’s why I’m not bracing myself when he says, “Get back to your house, female.” Somehow, his face becomes even harder. “Go now before you ruin yourself beyond repair. You’re not my mate. You play free with your honor, lingering alone in the dark. You should keep company with the other females as is right. Do you heed me, female?”
Every word he spits is harsher than the last until by the end, he’s snarling at me. My wolf is frozen in terror and confusion.
My eyes well with tears. Shame broils every inch of my skin. I want to run, but Clay and Eldrick are standing between me and the path home, and my wolf’s too scared, and I am, too, of this hard, cruel male glaring daggers at me as he drives his point home.
“This isn’t the work for you, female. Go to the kitchens with your sisters. You draw attention to yourself here. You make males question your virtue. Do you understand?”
I can’t nod or speak. My tongue is stuck. My voice is broken.
I stare at the male who I let kiss me, the scent of his anger and disgust choking me.
He’s a stranger.
I risked my reputation and let him touch me for what? To save myself a few trips up the great stairs? To feel special. I’m not. I know that.
I’m a fool. All it took was a Claw offering him a seat by the alpha’s circle and willing, higher-ranking pussy, and he’s done with me. I’m the slut. Not the male who changes his tune the instant he’s promised eager females and a “lifestyle.”
I never thought he’d be this way, but how can I be surprised? Every male in North Border is this way from the alpha to the lowest Ditch. It’s my fault. I tricked myself.
“Save yourself for your mate, female, and go home before you get into any more trouble,” Clay growls at me. “Hear me?”
I know I’m dismissed, but everyone’s eyes are still on me, pinning me in place, paralyzing my trembling wolf.
I’m not a troublemaker. Sneaking into the shed with Clay was the only wrong thing I’ve done on purpose in my life, and I’m paying for it now, oh Fate, I’m paying.
Clay glares at me. I bend my neck lower, but my fear doesn’t allow me to look down. I’m dizzy and burning with humiliation, and I can’t even make my legs move to walk away.
“Go home now! Get!” Clay finally snarls, the words ringing out, a slap, a switch to my wolf’s haunches. I grab my skirts and run, the laughter of the males and gasps of the females nipping at my heels.
I run as fast as I can, but it’s still not fast enough to escape the sound of Clay’s wolf howling a clear warning in my wake.
Don’t come back.
Not my mate.