Weddings were supposed to be happy occasions, but Carolina could find little to smile about. Although she’d known her family was angry with her, she hadn’t realized just how far she’d fallen out of favor until now. While they all huddled together at the top table, she’d been relegated to a seat so far toward the back of the marquee it might as well be out in the garden.
She had imagined the wedding between her cousin Marco and his Scots bride, Sadie, would provide an opportunity for reconciliation. This was a momentous occasion after all. The joining of the ancient di Angelo and MacDonald wolf shifter packs meant a strengthening of both their bloodlines. She’d thought in such an atmosphere of celebration, her family would put events of the past behind them and look to the future. Fat chance of that, it seemed.
As people got up and began to dance, Carolina remained where she was. She barely knew anyone and those she did know would prefer her to fade into the background.
Carolina looked up to find a man she recognized as Leonid Sobakhin hovering over her. Head of Volkovs, a Russian shifter pack from Irkutsk, he’d been hunting her sister for the last five months. He’d been given Marco’s blessing to take Francesca as his mate. Sobakhin was supposed to take her in hand, but so far she seemed to have eluded him. Good for her. This mongrel didn’t deserve to mate with a woman like Francesca. Disconcerted by his intense stare, Carolina dropped her gaze to the bottle of champagne and two glasses he held.
“I asked you a question, myshka,” he said when she didn’t respond.
“Little mouse?” Carolina scoffed. She was hardly that.
“You speak Russian?”
Carolina shook her head. “I speak masculine bullshit. I can decipher it in seventeen different languages.”
Sobakhin laughed as he slid into the seat beside her without waiting for an invitation. It didn’t surprise her since alphas tended to just take what they wanted. He put the glasses down on the table and filled them both with champagne before sliding one over to Carolina. “Drink.”
“I prefer prosecco, signore.”
“Drink it anyway.” There was an underlying note of command in his voice. “This is a celebration, after all. You should loosen up a bit.”
In no mood to spar with a man like Leonid Sobakhin, Carolina lifted the glass to her lips and took a sip. “If you’re hoping to get me drunk so I’ll tell you where Francesca is, you’re out of luck. I haven’t heard from her since she left me in Florence.”
“That’s alright, myshka. I already know where your sister is.”
“You do?” Carolina sat up a little straighter. “Where is she? Why haven’t you claimed her yet?”
“She’s in Paris,” Sobakhin replied, “and I’m waiting for the optimum moment.”
“When will that be?”
“When she runs out of cash. I want her to come to me on her knees and beg me to take her in.”
Carolina snorted. “That will never happen. Francesca would rather starve than debase herself in that way.”
Although her words were spoken with assurance, Carolina wasn’t certain they were true. Her sister enjoyed life’s luxuries too much to go without.
“I doubt that,” Sobakhin said dismissively. “She’s already starting to look desperate. She’s sold all the jewelry from her little stash.”
Carolina’s eyes widened in surprise that Sobakhin knew about that. Her sister had a small fortune in precious jewels squirreled away in a safe deposit box in case she ever needed to run out on the family. It was unbelievable to think she’d sold all the pieces after only five months.
“She’ll find a way to survive. She always does.”
“No, myshka, she won’t. She’ll soon come to me when the money runs out. She’s got nothing left to sell.”
“Except her virginity.”
As soon as the words left her lips, Carolina wished she could take them back. Knowing Francesca was a virgin would only spur on a man like Sobakhin and the expression on his face showed he hadn’t been aware of the fact until now.
“Francesca’s a virgin?”
“No,” she lied unconvincingly. “Forget I said anything.”
Carolina looked away but Sobakhin grabbed her chin and forced her to turn back to him. His tight grip hurt her, but her eyes gleamed in defiance.
He squeezed harder. Fearing her might bruise her, Carolina nodded.
“Si, I’m sure.”
“How can that be?”
Considering Francesca’s reputation as a man eater, Sobakhin’s surprise was to be expected.
“She likes to tease but she never follows through.”
It would probably seem far-fetched to the Russian alpha, but Francesca was saving herself for her mate.
“And you?” Sobakhin looked at her with interest. “Are you a virgin too?”
“Oh, no, signore, I have plenty of experience.”
She couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice. Apart from a couple of men she’d really liked, most of her lovers had been pushed on her by Francesca who got a perverse thrill from whoring her younger sister out.
Sobakhin studied her for a moment and then let go of her chin. Carolina gulped down the rest of her champagne and held the glass out for a refill, which the Russian promptly provided.
“So, what should we drink to?” Carolina sneered. “Virgins or whores?”
“Whichever you prefer. I like them both.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do, signore, but don’t underestimate my sister. She may be a virgin, but she’ll eat you alive.”
Her threat failed to land. Sobakhin simply laughed.
“Unless,” Carolina continued, “she finds herself another benefactor. Paris is full of eligible bachelors.”
A thrill of satisfaction shot through her as the Russian alpha’s jaw clenched, a sure sign of irritation.
“You do have someone keeping an eye on her while you’re here, don’t you, signore?”
Sobakhin said nothing but his actions spoke volumes. He drained the alcohol from his glass, got up and walked away. His cellphone was at his ear before he was even halfway toward the exit. Carolina raised her champagne flute to his back and grinned at having won that round. The arrogant alpha and her spoiled sister were a perfect match. She was only sorry she wouldn’t be there to watch them tear each other to pieces.
She drank a little more of her champagne, but before she could relax she spotted her cousin, Alessio, storming toward her. That was all she needed: the pack enforcer coming to tell her off for whatever crime he’d decided she’d committed this time. In no mood for his crap, she got up with the intention of making a quick exit through the back of the marquee.
“Don’t even think about it,” he commanded. “Sit down.”
Obediently, Carolina dropped back onto her seat. There were few men who had the power to terrify her and Alessio was one of them. Rather than joining her at the table, he stood over her, a typical intimidation tactic. She waited for him to speak.
“What did you say to him?” Alessio demanded.
Ah, he was curious about her conversation with Leonid Sobakhin. Deciding to play dumb, she batted her eyelashes at him and remained silent. She’d pay for it when they returned home to Italy but while they were in public and he was trying to appear civilized, she could have a little fun with him.
“Sobakhin,” Alessio hissed. “What did you say to him?”
“Sobakhin? Oh, is that who that man was?”
“You know damned well it was. What did you say?”
“I just told him he shouldn’t leave Francesca alone in Paris too long.”
Alessio narrowed his eyes.
“You can’t help yourself, can you?” he hissed. “You just have to cause trouble.”
A judder of fear ran down her spine as he moved closer. She may have created a little mischief with the Russian alpha but there was no harm done. Alessio was just itching for an excuse to punish her. Ever since Francesca had tried to drive away Marco’s mate Sadie, the family had been castigating Carolina for her complicity in the plot.
“I’m sorry,” she cried out as he grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet.
“You will be in a minute.”
As Alessio began to drag her toward the exit at the rear of the tent, two brawny figures in kilts moved to block their way. Neil and Duncan MacDonald had played host to Carolina for the last few days. She’d stayed with them in their farmhouse, away from Glenlogie Lodge where the rest of her family had been given rooms. Another sign of the distance that had grown between her and the pack.
“Where are you off to?” Neil asked amiably, though there was an edge to his tone.
Alessio bristled at this interference. He wasn’t used to anyone standing in his way. “I’m taking my cousin outside for a quiet chat.”
“A quiet chat?” Duncan raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Alessio spat.
“Actually, you do,” Duncan said. “If you’re planning to reprimand her for something, you’re stepping over the line.”
“It’s not your concern.”
“Aye, it is.” Neil stepped forward, eyes gleaming with pent-up aggression. “If there’s any punishment to be doled out, we’ll be the ones to do it.”
Carolina’s mouth fell open. What did he mean by that? Did they think just because she was staying with them they had the right to discipline her if she misbehaved?
“What the hell gives you the right to say something like that?” she demanded.
Neil turned his attention to her, his steely gaze making the breath hitch at the back of her throat.
“I have every right,” he said. “This is our territory. Our word is law.”
His words sent a tingle of dread down her spine and she stared in fascination at the man who was challenging her cousin’s authority so brazenly. It was an insult that surely would not go unanswered. She wasn’t part of their pack, after all. To her surprise, Alessio let go of her arm and nodded curtly.
“She’s all yours,” her cousin said stiffly and then walked away.
Carolina watched him go and then turned to Neil and Duncan. They were regarding her with such intensity she felt a frisson of excitement. There was a predatory glint in their eyes that sparked a response deep inside her and she pressed her legs together to quell the unexpected arousal. She swallowed hard as the two men moved closer. She’d already suspected they liked to share women and now she was sure she was right. How did she feel about that? Intrigued, she supposed, but it didn’t really matter since she wasn’t going to be here much longer.
“Have you been a naughty girl, Carolina?” Neil asked eventually.
A naughty girl? Just who the hell did this upstart Scot think he was talking to? She was a di Angelo, a shifter princessa and he was a farm boy.
“I think she has been a naughty girl,” Duncan responded. “Look at her blushing cheeks. A sure sign of a guilty conscience.”
She wasn’t blushing, was she? Carolina raised a hand to her face and found her skin was indeed red-hot.
“It’s warm in here,” she said with a pout. “I’m going out for some fresh air.”
“Ah, no, you’re not.” Neil stepped in her way. “You’re going to come and dance with us.”
“No, I’m not. I’m going outside.”
“Ah, sweetheart, this is not a debate,” Duncan said. “You’re going to dance with us.”
As much as the idea of dancing with these handsome Scotsmen appealed, Carolina shook her head. There was no way she was going to allow them to dictate to her like this. It might send a shiver of excitement through her when they spoke with such command, but they had no right to tell her what to do.
“Come and dance,” Neil said firmly. “It’s a party and I’ll not have you hovering like a cloud at the back of the room making people uneasy.”
Was she doing that? She had thought she was doing what everyone wanted, the di Angelo bad seed laying low for once.
“I’d rather stay here,” she replied.
Neil put a finger beneath her chin and forced her to look up at him. His eyes were dark, menacing. He was not to be denied yet Carolina couldn’t give way. She glared defiantly back at him.
“This is a party, Carolina,” Neil said, his tone softening just a fraction. “People are having fun. You are going to come down off your pedestal and join in or so help me I’ll take you over my knee right now and skelp your ass, then give Duncan a turn.”
Skelp? Carolina’s eyes widened as she realized what he was threatening. She’d come across their little punishment chamber with its spanking benches and paddles when they left her alone in their house. She knew they were into some dark stuff that she’d only ever read about. The thought of men like them spanking her was horrifying and yet at the same time, a fluttering between her legs suggested she was not entirely opposed to the idea.
“Carolina?” Neil prompted. “What’s it to be?”
She shook her head. She wouldn’t welcome the humiliation of being punished by them in public, but she didn’t want to make a fool of herself on the dance floor either.
“I don’t know the steps,” she said quietly.
Seeming to understand she wasn’t continuing to defy him just for the sake of it, Neil let go of her chin and softened his harsh expression with a smile.
“It’s easy. We’ll teach you.”
“Come on,” Duncan urged. “They’re about to do a Dashing White Sergeant, and we need you to complete a set.”
“A Dashing White Sergeant,” Neil said. “Come on, you’ll have fun. It involves a threesome.”
Carolina’s cheeks reddened as his flirtatious words added weight to her suspicion the cousins liked to share. She looked past them to where everyone was gathering on the dance floor. She wanted to join in but fear of getting the steps wrong held her back. “My shoes…”
“Take them off,” Neil said, dismissing her excuse.
“I’ll make a fool of myself.”
“Och, wheesht lassie.” Duncan’s Highland brogue came through stronger than before. “Does anyone here look like they care?”
Carolina looked around the room and realized people weren’t eyeing each other up and making snide judgmental comments. They were too busy having fun. Still reluctant to participate, she gave Neil her hand. He led her to the dance floor and positioned her between him and Duncan. Opposite them stood their cousin Jamie and his wife, Anna, the only one of the MacDonald women Carolina had really spoken to since she delivered meals to her each evening. A woman she didn’t know stood on the other side of Jamie, and Carolina could see now how this worked. Two men and a woman and two women and a man so the men never needed to hold hands with each other.
“They persuaded you to give it a go?” Anna said.
Although she still felt annoyed at being pressed into this, Carolina wasn’t about to take her irritation out on the one person around here she’d warmed to. She flashed Anna a smile.
“Yes, they did, but I’ve no idea what I’m doing.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it in no time. We join hands and the circle moves to the left for eight beats and then the right for eight. Then the circle breaks and you turn to Neil and pas de Basque. He’ll turn you around and you do the same with Duncan. Then we hold our hands up high and you go through and make another set with the people behind us.” Anna grinned as Carolina’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I’ve lost you, haven’t I?”
“You’ve lost us, woman, and we know the bloody dance,” Neil said with a laugh. All trace of his earlier dominant assholery was swept away by joviality. “Just follow our lead, Carolina. You’ll do fine.”
The music started and Carolina’s heart fluttered. Despite her fears, she soon got the hang of the steps, and she found herself roaring with laughter. Neil and Duncan might be rather forbidding at times, but they clearly knew how to have fun. As the dance progressed, and they moved on to form sets with different trios, they eventually came face to face with Sadie, Ross, and Lisa.
“They managed to drag you onto the floor,” Sadie shouted. “I couldn’t persuade Marco.”
“There was no persuasion necessary,” Neil replied before Carolina could speak. “She couldn’t wait to get her hands on us.”
Carolina didn’t have a chance to offer a retort as the music stopped and loud applause broke out. Duncan walked off and Carolina turned to follow but Neil grabbed her hand.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “It’s an eightsome reel next.”
“Is finding some poor unsuspecting lassie to partner him,” Neil told her. “We need four couples for this one.”
Carolina’s face fell as she realized that meant he would be dancing with another woman. Her twinge of jealousy was irrational since she had no claim on the man, but she felt envy, nonetheless.
Neil must have seen something in her expression because he smiled reassuringly and squeezed her hand. “It’s only dancing, sweetheart.”
Any denial she was unhappy about Duncan partnering someone else would sound unconvincing, so Carolina said nothing. She was glad, however, when Duncan returned to them with their cousin’s mate, Lisa, who was far too smitten with Ross to flirt with another man.
They took their places and the band struck up once more. The steps of the reel were a little more complicated than the last dance but when Neil urged her into the center of the circle that formed, Carolina somehow managed not to mess up.
As a shifter, she had boundless energy but after several further dances with Neil and then Duncan she was relieved when the band announced they were taking a short break.
“What now?” Carolina asked.
“Now, we drink,” Neil said as he joined them.
Despite her protestations, he dragged Carolina back to the table where he and Duncan sat with the other MacDonald men and their mates. Since she hadn’t yet spent much time with them, she was worried about how they would respond to her presence. She had no idea what, if anything, they knew about her sister’s campaign against Sadie or that she had quietly gone along with the increasingly desperate attempts to force her and Marco apart. Neil and Duncan hadn’t brought up the subject but perhaps they hadn’t been given the details of what happened in Italy. She had no such hopes that Marco had left Sadie’s brother, the pack alpha, in the dark.
Fortunately, everyone welcomed her, even the alpha. From what she’d seen, Finn MacDonald was like her brother in many ways. He was a little rougher around the edges, more down to earth. He might wear the same designer suits and carry a similar air of entitlement, but something about him suggested he was really a country boy at heart.
Maddie and Lisa, who were both academics at a local university, regaled her with stories about the history of the estate and Anna chipped in occasionally with snippets of information. Their combined knowledge was intimidating. Carolina hadn’t attended school, receiving only a basic education from the women of her pack. That hadn’t gone far beyond folklore and cooking.
The women were just about to tell her the story of Glenlogie Castle, the magnificent ruins of which sat on a hill behind the lodge where the family currently lived when Alessio approached. A dark cloud slowly descended over Carolina as he cast her one of his disapproving glares. She got the distinct feeling he was extra mad at her because of Neil and Duncan’s earlier intervention.
“Marco and his bride are about to leave,” he announced. “She’s going to throw the bouquet.” He practically clicked his heels together as he turned and strode off again.
“Who shoved a stick up his ass?” Lisa asked as she got to her feet. “The man’s as stiff as a board.”
Carolina smothered a laugh as she saw Alessio’s shoulders tense. He might be halfway across the room but like all shifters in their prime, he had incredible hearing. Either Lisa had forgotten that, or she wasn’t afraid of uptight wolves. Maddie giggled as she got up and followed Lisa from the room.
“Aren’t you going to see if you can catch the bouquet, sweetheart?” Duncan asked.
Carolina cocked an eyebrow at him.
“No. Marriage is a farce. Our kind only do it when they want to pass themselves off as normal human beings. Marco’s marrying Sadie because he wants his business associates to think he’s respectable and reliable like they are with their little wives and perfect families. Shifters mate for life. They don’t need all this fuss.” Suspecting her tone had been a little harsh, considering the way Duncan was gawping at her, she cleared her throat and smiled. “Besides, I think your cousins are next in line.”
“Aye,” he agreed. “Finn and Maddie are next and then Ross and Lisa.”
“What if Lisa catches the bouquet?”
“Finn will still marry first,” Ross said from across the table. “Alpha’s prerogative.”
“Either way, there’s two more weddings coming up, so we’ll have you country dancing like a pro in no time,” Neil said.
Carolina didn’t point out she wasn’t going to be at those weddings since her family was due to head back to Italy tomorrow, minus Marco and Sadie who were off to the Maldives on their honeymoon. A strange look passed between the men, and she wondered what it was about. Before she had a chance to ask, a loud cheer came from outside the marquee and Maddie flounced back in, triumphantly waving a bouquet of pink and white flowers over her head.
“Well, that settles the question,” Neil said as Maddie and Lisa returned to the table. “Maddie and Finn are next down the aisle.”
“I propose a toast,” Duncan said, and everyone raised their glasses. “To Maddie and Finn.”
“Maddie and Finn,” a chorus of voices cheered.
“And to new friends,” Maddie said with a smile. “To Carolina.”
A deep pink blush spread across Carolina’s cheeks as the group turned toward her. People thought she enjoyed being the center of attention, but they were wrong. Francesca was the one who’d kept thrusting her into the spotlight.
As Neil and Duncan raised their glasses to her, their gazes seemed to burrow under her skin to lay her innermost desires bare. A terrifying and exhilarating thought entered her head. They wanted her and they intended to have her.