Declan Collins lay on his belly in the hot sand. The camouflage bandana he’d wrapped around his head captured some, but not all, of the sweat from the unrelenting sun in the Middle East. Declan was an Army Ranger, specifically a sniper. His current assignment was to terminate the life of one of the leaders of the opposition’s guerilla forces. Given his close proximity to the target and the fact that it was full daylight ensured it would be an easy kill… if there was such a thing. No kill was ever easy. Each and every one cost the man taking it a little bit of his soul.
The compound seemed to be housing more than just the men of the guerilla unit. It appeared that several, including the leader, had their entire families with them. That didn’t make sense. For one thing most often these compounds were strictly off limits to women and children. For another, it seemed that only a few of the men had their families in residence. The hair on Declan’s neck began to stand up. Something was very off about this whole thing.
Declan didn’t question whether or not the target needed to die. There was substantial evidence that he was directly responsible for the loss of many American lives. Taking him out would weaken this particular guerilla unit and ensure greater safety for the men with whom he served.
Many snipers had a spotter—someone who kept watch over the sniper’s safety so he could focus on the target and could also observe things outside of the immediate vicinity of the target. Declan preferred to work alone.
Listening to his honed instincts that said something was very wrong, Declan rolled up onto his knees, careful to stay as hidden behind the sparse vegetation as he could. His chosen sniper’s nest was at the top of a sandy dune. The horse he’d ridden out was on the other side of the dune from the compound.
Many of his compatriots teased Declan about his choice of a horse over a motor-powered vehicle. He liked to point out that horses didn’t easily run out of fuel or get their motors clogged by the abundance of sand.
Declan scanned the entire compound. He gave it a quick once-over but the group of men gathered together out of the sight of the main force caught his attention. The group’s second-in-command was at the center. As he watched, the man seemed to be issuing orders. Not all that uncommon, but the pulling of ceremonial swords and daggers was cause for alarm. It would appear that there was a coup about to take place. Declan wouldn’t need to kill the leader of the guerilla force; his own men were about to do it. Had it just been the man himself, Declan would have called it a day. The problem was the man’s family was at the compound. Declan was pretty sure the planned coup included the extermination of their leader’s family.
Declan could live with taking the life of an enemy combatant, but not his wife and children.
Declan ran down the dune and swung up onto his horse. He took off at a gallop, skirting the edges of the dune to get to the backside of the compound where the women and children were. Unless someone had moved it, there was a large transport truck back there. Hopefully it was operable and he would be able to get all of the intended victims’ families to safety.
Finding a safe place behind a set of mostly destroyed buildings, Declan scanned the compound. He knew that protocol was not to intervene. And if he was planning to deviate from the original assignment he needed to call in. Not wanting to disobey a direct order, Declan placed his communication device on the ground and got his horse to step on it, smashing it into bits. Declan removed the horse’s saddle and bridle, burying it in the sand and shooed the horse away. Theoretically the horse should head back for their base. But if not, at least he wouldn’t be hindered by Army gear.
Declan used his scope to take another look at the compound. Most of the men were still situated toward the front. Keeping low and using as much natural cover as he could, Declan ran toward the back of the compound. Thankfully there was only one guard that Declan was able to neutralize. He checked the truck. He was in luck. Its gas tank was full, which indicated that it was operable. If it wasn’t, the gas would have been drained from the tank.
A commotion and men screaming could now be heard from the front of the compound. The women were not fools and he could see the alarm on their faces. He approached them, gesturing to the truck.
“Do any of you speak English?” he said in his broken Arabic.
“A little,” came the soft reply of a young woman who couldn’t be more than twenty.
“Do you understand what’s happening?” he asked.
“Tell them all there’s a truck out back. I think I can get us away from here and to safety.”
“But you are an American.”
“Yes, ma’am. But I won’t stand by and watch innocents murdered. Come on, we have to go.”
The young woman spoke far too rapidly for Declan to understand what she was saying, but apparently she made a good case for trusting him as the women gathered the children and ran to the relative safety of the truck.
Once everyone was in the truck, Declan secured the back and jumped into the driver’s seat. The sounds from the coup were still concentrated toward the front of the building. He jumped into the cab of the truck, revved the motor, and peeled out of the compound. He heard several shots fired but none came close.
Declan headed back to the base. He smiled when he thought of informing his commanding officer of the change in plans. He knew the colonel would officially dress him down for his actions. After that, he’d buy Declan a drink. The colonel was a good man and would understand that the target had been killed, but that Declan’s actions had saved a good number of innocents’ lives. Not a bad day’s work at all.
Declan drove as fast as the truck would allow. As night began to fall, he rolled into the entrance to the base camp. He was waved in and headed to the medic’s tent. Once there, he helped the women and children out of the truck and introduced them to the native speaking staff that assisted the Army medical team. As he was about to leave, the young woman who had interpreted for him caught his arm.
“Thank you. We live because of you.”
Declan put his hand over hers. “You’re more than welcome. I hope all of you will be all right.”
She nodded. “We will have that chance, because you risked yourself for us. We will never forget.”
Declan smiled and turned toward the colonel’s tent. It was time to pay the piper, but Declan was certain that whatever it cost him, it was worth it.
Ava Rhys stood facing the corner of her room at Calon Onest located on the western coast of Wales. Ava had been born here and lived her whole life as a member of the pack. She couldn’t help but wonder, how had things gone so wrong?
Calon Onest had been the home of one of the oldest and largest wolf shifter packs in the United Kingdom. The pack had been under the rule of the Owen family for many generations. Its alpha now was Ioan Smith-Davies, who was the fated mate of Bethan Owen.
Bethan’s older brother had been Micah Owen—alpha before Ioan. Micah had been murdered by a group of shifter hunters. His death had been avenged by his mate, Skylar, who had left her home in Wales to found an all-female pack in the United States. That pack had been disbanded by the Ruling Council and Skylar was now happily mated to a powerful alpha on the East Coast of America.
Bethan’s younger brother was the dashing Griffin, who had been a Special Forces operative. It should, in Ava’s opinion, be Griffin who ruled at Calon Onest… with Ava at his side. Ava had always wanted to be the mistress of her pack. She saw Griffin as a means to an end. If she was his mate and he took his rightful place as alpha, then she could achieve her goal. It didn’t hurt that Griffin was sexy and sensual, powerful yet gentle. Ava was fairly certain that she would be able to use her sexual prowess to control him.
There had been numerous times she had offered herself to Griffin. He had steadfastly refused her offers, but had made it seem like he thought she was either too young or that he was not at a point in his life to find a mate and settle down.
Ava hadn’t been the only she-wolf in the pack who wanted Griffin for her own. But as one of the few female alpha wolves she had easily dissuaded others to relinquish any claim they thought they might have. Several times, her efforts had caused her to run afoul of Colum, the pack’s beta and chief disciplinarian for the unmated females in the pack. Ava was convinced that if she could persuade Griffin to become her mate and take over leadership of the pack, she could make Colum pay for all the spankings he’d given her over the years. At the very least she would see that he was no longer beta. At best, she’d have him banished from Calon Onest.
The last time Griffin had been home, Ava had managed to put the first step of her master plan into effect… they’d had sex. Griffin was drunk and had just returned from a Special Ops mission that had left him reeling. Although Ava would later tell others she had only wanted to offer him solace, she had in fact taken advantage of his weakened emotional state to try to manipulate the situation to her advantage. If he wasn’t interested in having her when he was sober and happy, she’d take him drunk and in need of a release.
Ava had cornered Griffin and enticed him with her body and her uninhibited sexuality to give in to his baser needs. They had enjoyed a good sexual romp. Granted it was in wolf form, but he had knotted her. She had reveled in his dominance and the way he had mounted and possessed her so completely.
She thought at last the dashing younger brother to the slain Micah Owen had recognized her as his equal and his mate. Ava was certain he would claim her and then claim his rightful place as alpha to the Calon Onest pack with her by his side. But it hadn’t happened that way. Instead Griffin had seemed ashamed and had apologized to her for what had happened. She had tried to convince him that he had done nothing wrong, but he had been unrelenting and had informed Ioan of what had happened. Had it not been for Ioan’s mate intervening, Griffin would have been banished from the pack.
The pack had been informed a few days ago that Griffin was coming home. Ava couldn’t help but feel excited. She just knew he was coming back to claim her.
She waited until he had gone up to the room that his insipid sister, Bethan, kept for him in the main keep. Disobeying strict orders from both Colum and Ioan, Ava let herself into his room and arranged herself artfully on his bed in what she thought was a provocative but not slutty pose.
Ava moistened her lips when the shower shut off. Her pupils dilated, her nipples hardened, and her pussy began to get wet when the door to the bath opened and Griffin stepped out in his jeans not quite buttoned all the way to the top and his sweater in his hands. Ava felt as though all her plans were finally coming to fruition.
That’s when everything went horribly wrong.
“Welcome home, Griff,” she said as seductively as she could.
“Ava, stop. I don’t have time for this. Be a good girl, leave my room, and don’t come back.”
“Didn’t you miss me, Griffin?” she purred at him as she rose and gracefully crossed to him.
He stood stock still. “Not at all. We aren’t going to do this, Ava. Not ever.”
“We did it once before,” she said, still clinging to the memory of that night, a night she had relived in her dreams repeatedly.
“Yes, because you caught me on a night I was drunk and stupidly gave in to my baser desires. Something for which I am deeply regretful and have apologized to you.”
“But you wanted me. You knotted me…” she said, not liking the note of desperation in her voice.
“As a wolf. Even as drunk and desperate as I was to fuck, I realized that being with you was a bad idea. Now stop this or I’ll have to speak to Ioan.”
She wound her arms around his neck and rubbed her body along his. “I need you, Griffin.”
“What you need, Ava, is a series of long, hard spankings on your bare bottom and to be mated to a wolf who can keep you in line and well laid. I said enough,” he said, disentangling himself from her.
Before she could speak again, Colum knocked and came into the room. Taking Ava by her upper arm, he shook his head before saying, “Ioan is waiting for you, Griff. Sorry about Ava. She was told to leave you alone.”
He turned his attention to Ava. “And you, little wolf, need to go to your room and stand in the corner until I come in to deal with you.”
Ava was a born female shifter, which was becoming increasingly rare in their society. Ava squashed the urge to draw upon her most alpha tendencies and tell Colum to fuck off and that she would do no such thing. She would not allow him to treat her as a child. But the problem with challenging Colum’s authority was that it would only antagonize him and make her punishment more severe.
Instead she stomped her foot and said, “I won’t.”
“You will,” Colum said. “And if you don’t obey me right this second, I’ll be taking my strap to your bare arse. Go. Now.”
And so she stood in her room, facing the corner and debating whether to defy Colum and thereby Ioan’s dominion over her, or to try to plead for leniency. Unfortunately, she had firsthand knowledge of how painful a welting on her bare bottom from Colum’s strap could be.
“Well, I see you at least had the good sense to obey me when I found you in Griffin’s room,” said Colum as he entered her room. His voice sounded tired, but resigned.
The door closed behind him and the floorboards creaked as he crossed to her bed, sitting down on the edge. He took a deep breath and then exhaled it slowly.
“Let’s get this over with. Come here to me, Ava.”
She turned around and glared at Colum. The rational part of her wanted to try and explain and to see if she could avoid being spanked again. But the proud, defiant alpha she-wolf that always lay in wait behind the meek façade reared its head and whispered in her ear, “Not this time.”
“I don’t think so,” she said in a haughty tone. “I’m not sure why I honored your request to stand in the corner, but I have no intention of allowing you to spank me.”
Colum surprised her by chuckling. “There’s no allowing, little wolf. You were told in no uncertain terms that you were not to accost or bother Griffin in any way, shape, or form. And yet, there you were half naked, exposing yourself to him in an effort to… what?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, old man. You know nothing about what goes on between two alpha wolves. We mated the last time he was home. He knotted me,” Ava raged.
“He was drunk and horny,” replied Colum angrily. “And you were willing and available.” Colum shook his head and took another deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I know he regrets it deeply.”
“He doesn’t,” Ava insisted, stomping her foot again. “If you hadn’t interrupted us, he would have taken me again.”
Colum shook his head sadly and softened his tone. “No, little wolf, he wouldn’t have. I don’t mean to hurt you, but he took you as a wolf… not as a man. You were a way to ease his blood lust when he’d had too much to drink.”
“No,” she wailed softly, half afraid it was true.
“I know you wanted it to be different, but it isn’t. Griffin is not your mate, nor will he ever be alpha to our pack. I almost wish I could let you off without a spanking, but I fear without a painful enough backside to remind you to behave, Griffin will have to put up with more of your foolishness. Come be a good girl and get yourself over my knee. If you submit, I’ll only use my hand. If not, I did bring my strap and I’ll welt your bottom.”
Colum gestured with his hand for her to come to him. She hated this. Hated that as a female she was expected to submit. Hated that because of her sex she couldn’t rule her own pack or even her own destiny. Hated that she knew Colum meant to spank her hard enough that sitting would be painful for the next few days.
“Ava, don’t make me come get you. You know you were wrong. You know you deserve to be and are going to be punished. The only question is do you just want to feel my hand delivering that punishment or my strap?”
“Now, Ava,” he said with steel in his voice.
Knowing one way or another she was going to be spanked, Ava walked over to Colum. He helped her across his lap, ensuring she was securely placed before lifting the robe she had worn to Griffin’s room in order to bare her bottom for his discipline.
“You will find your mate, Ava. But I fear he will have a hard time bringing you to heel.”
Colum lifted his hand and brought it down sharply on her derriere, causing her to yelp. He began to systematically cover her backside with hard swats from his strong hand. Ava tried to wiggle and squirm to avoid the blows that rained down on her rump. The pain and heat Colum was able to inflict was awful. She hated being disciplined and yet she often felt as though she couldn’t help doing things that got her spanked.
Ava tried to keep from crying as the spanking continued and Colum made her sit spots and upper thighs his target. At last the pain was too much and she lost her fight with her tears. She began to cry, softly at first and then more loudly as Colum continued to lay into her. Once the tears started, true submission to the spanking and to the rule of the pack followed quickly. Ava gave over and accepted her place in the pack and at the moment over Colum’s knee.
Finally, Ava felt Colum stop and begin to rub her bottom soothingly. He helped her up off his knee and made her sit on his lap. He took his handkerchief and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“There now. All done. You were a naughty little wolf, weren’t you?”
Ava maintained a stony silence as her tears began to fall again. Colum wiped them away.
“Ava, do you want to show me I got through to you and behave, or do you need to go back over my knee for more paddling?”
“No,” she cried.
Ava looked into Colum’s face. There was kindness there, but also a grim determination that she would comply.
“No, sir,” she said with a resigned sigh.
“You were told not to bother Griffin, weren’t you?”
“And you disobeyed, didn’t you?”
“But we mated. We’re supposed to be together.”
“No, Ava. Griffin made a mistake but even drunk and in desperate need he didn’t take you as a woman, only as a wolf. I’m not excusing his behavior. He never should have done that, but I know he regrets it and I know he has apologized to you.”
“You don’t understand. He’s supposed to lead this pack with me beside him.”
“Ahh,” said Colum as realization dawned. “Is it Griffin you want or is it to be mistress of the pack?”
“Neither is yours to claim. I probably ought to put you back over my knee and take my strap to you, but I’m not going to. You go stand in the corner and think about what I said. You are to remain in your room until Griffin leaves. If I catch you disobeying again, I’ll welt you good. Do you hear me?”
Ava thought about defying him, but realized all her efforts would get her was a set of welts across her backside. She nodded and let Colum help her up and then went to stand in the corner. After about thirty minutes, Bethan entered the room with tea and cakes.
“Colum said I was to tell you that your punishment was over and you could come out of the corner, but was to remind you that you are not to leave your room. I thought you might enjoy a nice pot of tea and a little something to eat. Cook has made lemon cakes. I know they’re your favorite.”
Ava turned to glare at the woman who held the position that Ava thought should be hers, but found she could not maintain her hostility in the face of Bethan’s kindness. Ava realized that might be the one quality she lacked amongst those needed to be mistress of a great pack.
She walked over to the bed and sat down gingerly, taking the cup of steaming tea that Bethan had made for her. It didn’t surprise Ava that Bethan remembered she liked her tea with lots of cream but very little sugar.
“I do think there is little in this world that can’t be much improved with a good cup of tea.”
Ava smiled in spite of herself. “Even more so with lemon cakes.”
Bethan laughed. “They certainly do improve one’s outlook on things. I hate to leave you up here by yourself…”
“It’s all right, Bethan. I’m being punished and Colum could have made it a lot worse. I’ll be fine.”
Bethan reached out and patted her arm. “Of course you will be. We she-wolves are far stronger than some of the men give us credit for. You will find a mate, Ava. I hope he will be here with us at Calon Onest. I, for one, would miss you if you weren’t here.”
Ava watched as Bethan gracefully rose from the bed and then left her alone.
A few weeks later
Ava’s heart had soared when she heard that Griffin would be returning home. She meant to talk with him about what had happened and try to convince him they had a future together. Her hopes were dashed when Bethan had told her that Griffin was returning with his new mate, Maddie, a human who he’d turned.
Bethan had gone out of her way once Griffin had left again to engage Ava in the daily life of the pack. Ava had searched for Bethan to ask her advice, when she stopped outside Ioan’s study only to hear a conversation regarding her future.
“You can’t send her away, Ioan,” Ava overheard Bethan saying. “Calon Onest has been her home her whole life.”
“Ava needs a mate,” said Ioan with some finality. “She needs to be mated and brought to heel before she gets herself in real trouble. There’s no one here for her at Calon Onest.”
“Maybe we could find someone…”
“Bethan, you have said yourself she needs an alpha male. There are none here save me and I have my hands full with you,” Ioan teased his wife. “I have begun making inquiries amongst packs with unmated alphas. Ava is beautiful and shifter-born. Given the dowry she would bring from us as well as allegiance with our pack, finding her a mate shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Ioan, you can’t just marry her off. She needs to find her fated mate. She needs to fall in love.”
Ioan chuckled. “Not all she-wolves come to their mate’s bed of their own accord. As I recall there was a beautiful Welsh wolf who vowed she would choose her own mate regardless of the choice made for her by her older brother who was alpha of their pack.”
“How many years have I been blissfully mated to you and yet you refuse to let that go. Nigel was a fine, upstanding wolf…”
“Who would have indulged your every whim and never taken a strap to your backside regardless of how badly you needed it. As Micah found you your mate, so will I endeavor to find Ava’s. Hopefully, it will take fewer spankings to convince her to settle down once she is marked by him.”
“If you recall, my alpha, it wasn’t your marking that brought me to heel, but rather your knotting and tying me several times while we were in seclusion that made me decide that a beta without the ability to knot me in human form was far less desirable,” said Bethan in a husky tone.
Ioan growled low and seductively to his mate. “Ah, yes, I do recall that weighing heavily in my favor although as I remember it, what finally made you surrender to me was being knotted on a welted bottom after you tried running away.”
Bethan had giggled like a young girl as her mate and the father of her children continued to call to her in the way of their kind. A call that was said to be both felt and heard by the recipient. It was said to spread like wildfire through one’s blood and seep into the very marrow of one’s bones.
“Please don’t fret, my beloved,” said Ioan. “Ava is part of our pack and my responsibility. But part of that responsibility is to see her happy. And much as you hate to admit it, you know she would be far happier mated to the right wolf. Come give me a kiss and then go finish your preparations for Griffin’s return with his new bride.”
Ava had run from the house before Bethan could leave and find her eavesdropping. She had begun to believe that even if Bethan supported Griffin taking another to mate, that she cared for her. How could Bethan just agree with Ioan and sell her off to any alpha willing to pay the price in exchange for a shifter-born alpha female and an alliance with Calon Onest?
The estate was vast and Ava shifted to her wolf form to run. She galloped along the rugged coast and then up through the pastures and meadows seeking peace for her restless soul, weary mind, and wounded spirit.
Ava fled to the far end of the estate, to a quiet glade by a stream she’d found as a child. She thought of it as her special place known only to her. She kicked the dirt much like a child having a temper tantrum as she did it. She’d always come here to think and find peace—something that was never easy for her.
The rumors circulating throughout the world of the shifters was that there were rogue wolves, some even said rogue packs, who were raiding for breed-able females—be they shifter-born, turned, or still human. Ioan had, only the week before, issued a command that the women of Calon Onest were not to leave the estate without either his or Colum’s permission and with a male escort. Even as angry as she could get at the ruling members of her pack, she knew that they took the responsibility for the safety of the pack seriously.
As long as she remembered she had always wanted. Wanted something elusive and always seemingly out of reach. For a while she’d believed her fate lay with Griffin and as mistress to the Calon Onest pack. She thought he was the answer; thought he’d eventually get tired of saving the world and come back to take over as the rightful alpha of their pack and claim her as his mate. She now realized that was not meant to be.
Traveling the world first as a Special Forces operative and then at Ioan’s behest had given Griffin his fated mate and shown him that his happiness was not to be found here at Calon Onest. It was said he found her in New Orleans. She was human and had come under the protection of the pack there after a failed kidnapping attempt. The talk was that he was going to start a new pack on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with his new mate, Maddie.
Ava smiled a little to herself. She was nothing if not a realist. She realized she was in full-on pity party mode. The smile faded rapidly as tears began to form. In the peace of her little glade she digested the fact that Ioan meant to send her away. Away from the only place she’d ever known. She tried to sort out her feelings.
How could he do this to her? Passing her around like a she was some trophy prize—shifter-born, an alliance with Calon Onest, and a dowry. What was this, the fifteenth century? It was as if Ioan didn’t think that Ava on her own would merit anyone’s serious interest. Words failed her as she tried to sort through all the feelings crowding into her mind.
At the top of the list was anger, followed close by humiliation, hurt, and a feeling that she wasn’t wanted. No one recognized or appreciated her for who or what she was… only what she could bring to another pack.
If she was honest with herself, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Her own parents hadn’t wanted her. Her father had turned her human mother without her consent and had been bitterly disappointed when Ava had not been the son he coveted. When her father had been banished from the pack for both turning his mate without her consent and then abusing her, Ioan had convinced her mother to stay. However, she’d never truly adjusted to life within a pack and by the time Ava was seven, her mother had gone into town and never returned. Even though Ava was a rare shifter-born female, it seemed that she had never been of value to anyone.
On some level she knew this was a bad place for to be—not the glade, but the place in her own head—a dangerous place even. She knew this was often the kind of thinking that led to her making bad decisions. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that one of those ill-fated decisions she’d made lately was the night she’d pursued Griffin. She’d known he was drunk and knew he’d come home from a particularly bad mission with Special Ops. But Ava really had believed that if only she could get him to mate with her, he’d see the light. He’d see they were meant to be together and to rule Calon Onest. She had tried to dismiss the fact that he hadn’t wanted her in human form, but had been all too willing to knot and tie her as a wolf. It turned out that the only light Griffin had seen was that his ever having mated with her was a bad thing. Unwanted yet again.
After that whole fiasco, after showing Griffin she’d forgiven him for taking her the first time as a wolf, offering herself to him again and then being punished for it, now here she was being bartered around as if she were nothing more than some alpha’s fuck toy and broodmare. Ava couldn’t decide if she felt more like prized breeding stock or some high-dollar whore.
Well, damn it, she was worth more than that. She deserved better. She would not, absolutely would not allow them to treat her like this. If they wanted her gone then gone she would be—but on her terms, not theirs. Unbeknownst to anyone, Ava had saved some money and done some investing on the side. She had developed computer skills in programming, researching and being able to manipulate information on both the worldwide web and the dark net. She was a hacker of the first order. Whether or not she was a black-hat hacker or white-hat depended entirely upon who was willing to pay her the most money. She had kept her developing skills a secret from everyone within her pack—something for which she was now glad.
It was then that Ava came to a decision. What the hell… if America was indeed the land of opportunity then she’d go there and take that opportunity. To hell with all of them. They didn’t want her; she was gone.
Ava knew Griffin was to arrive sometime today and there would be a small celebration. She also knew that several of the packs were gearing up for a confrontation with some Eastern European packs they believed to have gone rogue. She was quite certain that an opportunity to escape Calon Onest and seek her own destiny in America would present itself.
Ava returned to the house in time to see Griffin arrive with Maddie, She supposed she was pretty enough and Griffin seemed besotted. Maddie’s eyes found hers and Ava scowled. She barely managed to stifle a yelp as Colum’s strong hand connected with her backside.
“You behave yourself,” he whispered. “If I hear one word said that you were anything less than kind and gracious to Griffin’s mate, I will welt you good and you will be confined to your room until this is all over. Am I clear, little wolf?”
“Yes, sir,” she said in as neutral a tone as she could muster.
Colum didn’t know it but he’d have nothing to worry about ever again. That would be the last time he’d ever swat her or threaten to do worse. She planned to be gone before the stroke of midnight.
Ava made her way up to her own room and sat in the middle of her bed making plane reservations, setting up a new bank account in America, and transferring funds. She had picked a remote town in coastal Maine. As far as she knew the closest wolf pack was hundreds of miles away in Canada. That meant, for all intents and purposes, the area she had chosen was devoid of pack rule. She would be free.
Her plan was to make a clean getaway. She was routed to fly into the Midwestern United States. At that point, she would buy a car and head east. Every few states she would buy a different car. She was going to try to make it as difficult to follow her as possible… if they tried at all.
Dinner had been a very celebratory affair. Ava had participated and been gracious to both Griffin and his new mate. For the life of her, Ava could not understand why Griffin had chosen to turn a human female rather than mate with a born shifter. It made no sense. Perhaps Griffin was not the wolf she believed him to be.
Ava did not believe in fated mates. She was convinced this was a fantasy perpetuated by the males of her species so that they could coerce a female into a mated pairing. Of course she’d been told that a male could call to his fated mate and she would not only hear him, but the call would reverberate throughout her body. Ava had never experienced such a call and was convinced it didn’t exist. By touting this myth as fact, the men could conspire and force females to be their mates.
There were elaborate rituals and rules associated with a male shifter declaring a woman to be his fated mate. Once he had done so and convinced the alpha under whose protection she lived, he could force her to shift to her wolf form and run her down. Once caught she could shift and accept his claim or he would mate with her as a wolf—knotting and marking her as his own. There were other ways men had come up with to force a woman to accept a mate she had not chosen for herself. In all of those scenarios, the one constant was that the woman’s desire not to be mated was subjugated to the will of the men around her.
At the end of the day, the males had all the power. Well, Ava was done with that. She would live on her own, subservient to no one.
Once she was finished with her preparations, she took a last look around the room that had been hers most of her life to see if there was anything else she needed or wanted to take with her. Seeing nothing, she cracked open her door and peeked out. She strained all of her senses, but she was sure no one was up and around. She moved down the hall to the hidden door she had discovered as a small child. She opened it quietly, went through, and closed it and her life at Calon Onest behind her.
Ava made her way down the dark steps, careful not to fall. It was paramount that she not be found out. She had no doubt in her mind that should anyone in the pack discover her plans, she would be taken to Ioan immediately and disciplined harshly.
Once she was at the lowest point of the passageway, she followed the tunnel away from the sea. As a child she had explored the tunnel system that ran under the estate and committed to memory which tunnels and turns led to which end point. The one she followed now would put her not only outside of the estate but a mile past the town that abutted it. Ava planned to double back and borrow a car to take her to Cardiff and her new life. She didn’t see it as stealing as she planned to send the owner a note as to where the car could be found and money to cover any and all expenses associated with retrieving it.
Ava found a car she knew she could borrow easily. She didn’t start feeling like she’d made a clean getaway until her forged passport had allowed her to board the plane, the plane lifted off and turned toward the United States. Pleased with herself, Ava allowed herself to relax and sleep, dreaming of her new life.
Bethan grew more worried as the morning got closer to noon. Finally, despite everything else, Bethan knew she had no choice but to tell Ioan she thought Ava had gone missing. Bethan had noted that Ava was missing from breakfast. She’d chalked it up with her not wanting to deal with Griffin and Maddie. Bethan had tremendous sympathy for her, but was happy that her younger brother had indeed found his fated mate. Griffin’s Madeline was perfect for him.
She asked one of the other pack members to locate Colum and ask him to join her and Ioan in the latter’s study. She knocked on the door before poking her head in.
“Might I disturb you, my love?” she asked quietly.
“My love, is it? At this hour? Has my mate regressed to the naughty ways of her youth?”
Bethan laughed. “Nay, my love. You and your strap cured me of that nonsense.”
“As I recall,” he said, “it took more than one lesson.”
As she got closer to her mate, Ioan reached out and pulled her into his lap, kissing her soundly and running his hand down her back to cup her derriere fondly.
There was a knock and Colum entered. He smiled broadly at the sight before him. His alpha had his mate in his lap and her face was flushed with desire.
“I was told you and Bethan wanted to see me, but I can come back at a more convenient time.”
Bethan tried to rise and straighten her clothes, but Ioan wasn’t having it. He pulled her back into his lap, trapping her there.
“I wasn’t aware we were meeting, but it would seem my mate has something to tell us,” Ioan said, looking at Bethan.
Bethan bit her lip. She had no desire to tattle on any of her ladies, but feared Ava might be doing something foolish, bordering on reckless and dangerous.
“What is it, sweetheart?” Ioan asked, realizing his mate was in distress.
“I suspect,” offered Colum, “that one of her ladies has done something naughty for which she will need to be disciplined. And if I had to wager money, I’d bet on Ava.”
Bethan remained quiet.
“Is that it?” asked Ioan. “Has Ava done something?”
“I don’t know,” answered Bethan. “I went upstairs to check on her and her bed hasn’t been slept in. There are a few clothes missing and some things I know are dear to her.”
“Bloody hell,” swore Colum. “This is my fault, Alpha. I failed to discipline her as harshly as I should the last time Griffin was home and she threw herself at him. Then last night I only threatened to spank her if she misbehaved.”
Ioan shook his head. “Tis not your fault, Colum. Ava’s a smart girl. I rather suspect she’s been planning something for a while. If she overheard Bethan and me talking the other day about finding her a suitable mate, it may have tipped the scales and made her feel she had to run.”
“Ioan, you don’t think so truly, do you?” asked Bethan, quite concerned.
“I do indeed,” was his reply. “Colum, contact the airports and train stations. I fear she has a head start of at least several hours. I’ll call Dylan Grainger in the States. He’s Skylar’s new mate and Ava may reach out to her if she’s headed to America.”
“Should I put out word with the Ruling Council?” asked Colum.
“No. I fear they have been compromised by the rogue element in our society. That would literally paint a target on her back. I will ask Dylan to spread the word quietly in North America and Marco DeMedici in Europe. We will offer a reward to anyone who can either return her to us or give us information that leads to us finding her.”
“I am sorry I failed you, Alpha.”
“You did no such thing, Colum. Ava is a headstrong girl. Always has been. We just need to find her and bring her home. Once she is home, we will deal with her reckless behavior. And like it or not, mate, when this rogue element has been put down, I will make finding Ava a suitable mate a priority.”
Colum nodded. “Aye. She’ll learn to behave if a good welting is followed by a good round of lovemaking.”
Ioan chuckled. “Don’t they all?”
Bethan rolled her eyes. “That’s really all the lot of you want… to get your hands on our bare asses and then get us on our backs so you can get between our legs.”
Colum was shocked. Normally Bethan was the model of the perfect quiet-spoken wife.
Ioan laughed aloud at her. “I fear, mate, that it will not be her mate’s hand that curbs Ava’s naughty behavior.”
Colum smiled. “I agree. It’ll take a strong arm with a good strap applied liberally and often.”