Excerpt for A Moment for Tara by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Moment for Tara



By Tamar Sloan



Published by Tamar Sloan at Smashwords


Cover Art Designed by SYNECA FEATHERSTONE

Copyright © 2017



Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

About Tamar Sloan

Chapter One

Back Before

For as long as I can remember Noah, Mitch and I have been the three amigos, the three musketeers, Huey, Duey and Luey.

From nappies, when we frolicked in communal drool puddles on Mom’s rug (okay, I don’t actually remember that, but I’ve got the photos to prove that it really happened). To first grade, where I had the tornado of all red-headed-tantrums because I WAS GOING TO JACKSONVILLE ELEMENTARY - coincidentally where Mitch and Noah were enrolled - even though I live in adjacent Wilmot. To yesterday, when we laid bets on what color our wolf forms would be when we turn sixteen in just a few short months (as a red-head I was a pretty done deal).

The fact that my childhood besties were guys was a bonus. When you have more younger sisters than should be legal in a first world country - six with number seven billowing in Mom’s tum - you well and truly get your daily dose of the morning hair line-up, how short is too short, and the total domination of pink. The Phelan boys were my grounding in a chaotic world of oestrogen overload, eldest child responsibilities and Bratz doll invasions.

But do you want to know what kinda sucks? And I mean more than stepping on a Bratz doll first thing in the morning (Lego ain’t got nothing on Yasmin). More than having a high body temperature that no one can know about so you still have to rug up and get beanie hair. More than asparagus.

When the one who went and stole your heart is one of those BFFs.

Sure, most people would think I’m on the wrong side of the coin. Being in love with your best friend since forever is kinda cool, right? Well, none of those people are me.

And my guess is they’re all human too.

Do you want to know when it started to suck?

Well, for that I need to go back a bit.

We were at the Glade, only three months ago, but it feels a whole lot longer than that. Mom’s bump was growing steadily and she needed a break. Even though she’s pale and frail at the best of times, she was on her way to a parchment paper look with this pregnancy. So I took three of my Channon siblings to the Glade; six-year-old Flora, four-year-old Breanna and two-year-old Christa. The Glade, the Channon and Phelan Were-church/mosque/temple built for us by Mother Nature, is the one place the wildness of children, particularly the Channon children, is welcomed. Even celebrated.

Noah and Mitch met us there. They’re twins, the fraternal type which means they’re not identical. In fact, they have matching blue eyes - gifted by their father’s DNA - and that’s where their similarities end. Noah has blond-hunk-without-even-trying ticked in every box, whilst Mitch is all dark-haired-boy-next-door good looks. Their ying-yang coloring puts an entirely different spin on their supposedly identical eyes. Noah’s lighten and warm.

Mitch’s darken and gain depth.

Anyway, I digress…

Flora, Breanna and Christa ran, tripped in the lush grass, and like it’s a giant green cushion, got up and ran again. They all know this place is secret, but not why. That we learn when we’re older and less likely to blurt that we have a tendency to turn into wolves at the age of sixteen. Children sense this place is special. Heck, the air knows this place is something else. It seems to hold still, like it doesn’t want to move on. The whole place is a breath held in Mama Nature’s lungs.

A game of tips evolved, possibly when I tagged Noah crying ‘eat my socks!’ then sprinted to the opposite end of the clearing. He’d grinned, then stumbled forward when Mitch used him as a platform to launch his own race in my direction.

Flora, Breanna and Christa dispersed in random directions, looking like a Stooges comedy as two bumped into each other, side-stepped one way then the other, then bumped into each other again. Flora was long gone, heading to the opposite end of the Glade.

Noah went all ‘fee-fie-fo-fum I smell the fur of a little one’ and started stalking. I was happy to stand and watch, listening to my little sisters’ laughter as they scuttled back and forth, laughing at Noah roaring like a stuck Were. But Mitch? I don’t think he’s ever stood back and watched anything.

He started circling, blue eyes glinting with mischief, slowly closing in. I knew what was coming, I’ve seen it countless times before, and I felt my smile stretch from one side of the Glade to the other. Noah knew what was coming too, you can’t miss a great big hulk of muscle and dark hair in an open glade no matter how ninja-like he steps. He knew Mitch would wait until the three little Channons had scampered off again.

But he’d forgotten that Mitch was the one who pretty much single handedly built our super-secret-cubby-castle deep in the forest behind his house. Which means that Mitch is the master craftsman of all things wood. The moment he was close enough his hand had whipped out and a twiggy throwing star had sailed through the air. Noah’s quick reflexes had him ducking, which is exactly what Mitch was expecting. He ran in, bowled Noah over like a lone pin and headed back to the center of the Glade.

Noah stood, put his head down and went from stationary to sprinting in a blink, his focus clearly on one target - Mitch. Mitch laughed, catch-me-if-you-can written all over his face.

They ran like two brothers having too much fun, like two guys who know they are about to become more than human. They ran until Noah slowly cornered Mitch at one end, the trees behind them, and Noah faked a left then went in from the right. Mitch didn’t even try to escape the boulder of blond coming at him. In true Phelan twin fashion, he met him head on and they crashed, fell and tumbled.

The moment that happened, like all the times before, the-children-of-the-three-ring-circus attacked. The instant the two brothers were down they knew that was their cue. Like a swarm of red squirrels, they overran the tumbling two. And just like he always has, Noah disentangled himself and left Mitch to be swallowed by Channon children. He acted like the three feisty little red heads were his own personal army, and with his opponent down, he left them to finish it. The kids were laughing, Mitch and Noah were laughing, I fell over I was laughing so hard — never suspecting what was coming next.

I look back now and wonder. Why would I fall for one and not the other? Why would I fall for the one I’m not supposed to choose? We were all having fun. No one stood out amongst the others. That’s one of the things that was awesome about our trio. We are like the three primary colours - red, blue and yellow. Equal. You need them all to make up the rest. Mix ‘em up and you get more.

And on that day Mitch didn’t do anything different than what he always has. So why? But then I think about it some more. Whilst Dana, my next sister down, always gravitated to Noah - maybe thanks to Dad’s casual comments; ‘that Noah’s got a good head on his shoulders’, ‘he’ll make a good Alpha that one’ - I could see that his steady, patient personality would be something a person could be attracted to. But the young ones loved Mitch. He was like a big juicy bone to a bunch of little Weres. They never considered turning and attacking Noah, they loved rumbling with Mitch.

As I watched him rolling on the grass, laughter and ‘no mercy’ and ‘oomph’ filling the Glade, something slipped. It was a slow build, but like all slow builds when it finally hits tipping point, it teeters, then falls spectacularly.

I’ve always loved Mitch. His laughter, his passion for creating, his commitment to his family. But in that sunlit moment in the Glade the world as I knew it dissolved and disappeared. And like a breathtaking painting blooming on a blank canvas, something else was created in its stead. All of a sudden familiar dark brown hair had dark chocolate highlights, blue eyes developed depths I hadn’t noticed, like layers of water color seeping and swirling into each other. Those eyes became deepwater eyes, and that boy became the focus of my rapidly beating heart.

And just like that I tripped, tumbled and fell in love with Mitch Phelan.

It felt so right, so true, so downright destined.

But it was wrong, disloyal and infinitely impossible.

And that’s why it sucks.

Chapter Two

Still Before

It took Mitch a little longer to discover anything beyond a world of chocolate cake and power tools.

I’d been trying so hard not to feel more than friendship - desperately trying to put him back in the column that Noah still sat in - and whilst Mitch saw me as his sister-bestie, it was moderately bearable. It wasn’t fun, nor would I recommend it, but I could manage.

But that changed in a moment.

It was only a couple of months before their Change. A few weeks before their sixteenth birthday, the day they head to the Glade and go through what I’d recently experienced. The awful pain, the agony, the awesome rush of our first change to a wolf. The first time you run with your pack through the trees with your Alpha parents by your side.

We were in the Phelan garage. Mitch was finishing off a beautiful bench seat, his first project beyond the countless coffee and end tables his mother was running out of room for. That bench took weeks of sanding, sawing and swearing to get it to its almost-finished state. Noah was out on Alpha training and I should have been at home. But it seems I have some masochistic tendencies, because I couldn’t stay away from the sweet pain of being with Mitch.

Mitch was talking me through the creative process. Words like maple and birch, quarter-inch chisel and the benefits of a drop saw over a circular saw (you learn a lot about power tools when you are determinedly NOT in love with one of your best friends) flew over my head.

Most of my responses involved no more than ‘ah ha’ and ‘I see’ as Mitch continued to talk wood, because my attention had been on the biceps bulging under his dusty black shirt, the shoulders bunching beneath his t-shirt, wanting to flick the sawdust from his hair…okay, wanting to just run my fingers through those dark chocolate locks. I jammed my hands into my lonely jeans, knowing I should go home, that this isn’t the right place to be, no matter how much I felt that it was.

Mitch paused, like he realized I wasn’t really paying attention. As my already overheated body had threatened to blush, I finally looked at the bench seat rather than its creator. My head had tilted to the side. “It’s too tall.”

Mitch stepped back, standing beside me. The smell of dust and the cinnamon and citrus scent that I’d suddenly developed an addiction to had hit my newly sharpened senses. I opted to breathe through my mouth…on every second breath. He’d looked down at me, dust motes hitching a ride on the streams of light spearing through the window, and he’d paused.

My breath vaporized, wishing he’d look away, loving spending time in that deepwater gaze. But he’d just turned back to the bench, brows knitting a smidgen.

That wasn’t the moment.

His finger had come up to rub his bottom lip. “It does look like it has moose legs.” He’d turned to me, blue eyes making my heart trip. “Help me turn it over.”

Yep, I should have gone home.

Instead, I stepped forward and we’d stood side by side as we gripped the base and carefully turned it over. It was heavier than I expected so I was glad for my recent Were strength. The bench had tilted back, back rest slowly coming down to the concrete floor, heading for a gentle, scratchless landing.

Until it slipped. The back too-long-legs had scraped forward and we had all of a heartbeat to slow it down and land it softly. Mitch grunted as I tightened my arms. We reigned it in like consummate removalists and it had settled on the garage floor with barely a bump, but the effort cost me. I tipped sideways, one leg crossing over the other as my balance took a brief siesta, and discovered in the weeks that I’d been avoiding touching Mitch that he’d filled out. Mitch frowned when I bumped into him, my shoulder connecting with his chest, my hair brushing his cheek. I bounced off that hot, dusty, familiar but oh-so-new body with the speed even a Were would be impressed by.

I looked away before he saw the stain on my cheeks that matched my hair. “Oops, sorry.”

“No probs.” He cleared his throat in the dusty silence.

He paused then stepped away and slipped on his protective glasses. “Stand back while I trim them down.”

That too, was not the moment.

I stepped back to where I should have stayed, heat I’m not supposed to be feeling flying through my veins. I wanted to rub my shoulder, knowing that rather than rubbing the heat that still tingled there to make it go away, what I’d actually be doing is trying to preserve the sensation.

Sweet cheeses, then he bent over, dark hair flopping onto his brow as denim stretched over places I’m not supposed to be looking, and measured. He took forever. I mean, did it have to be THAT precise? He’d measured, marked, then measured again before moving to the next leg.

Noah took that moment to join us. My brain had been relieved, but my stubborn heart had wanted to keep my eyes on that backside. He’d taken in Mitch leaning over the bench lying on its back and quirked a dark blond brow. “I thought it was done.”

Mitch grunted but didn’t look up. “Legs were too long.”

“Didn’t I say that yesterday?”

I’d given him a smug grin. “Ah yes, but I said it today.”

Noah slipped his arm around my shoulder and I leaned into the comfort and familiarity of our uncomplicated connection. “Either way, he listened to the wisdom of his elders.”

Mitch had looked up, mouth open with a retort to the old joke that seven minutes didn’t really count, taken in the arm that took that moment to give me a squeeze around my shoulder and clamped his mouth shut again. He frowned before mumbling something even my Were ears couldn’t pick up and turned back to his bench seat.

Still not the moment.

I looked up at Noah and he gave me a wink and a grin before heading back out. In hindsight, Noah had seen through me and figured this out long before Mitch.

It turns out it was the moment I didn’t do anything special. Mitch wasn’t even looking at me, we weren’t even touching.

It was a moment just like any moment.

Normal. Every day. Routine. Regular.

The whine of a circular saw filled the silence. Mitch squatted to do the bottom legs, focused intently on the black line he’d drawn, and cut the first leg. Then the second square of wood fell to join the first. He stood up and I was able to release the air from my screaming lungs. How much is a girl supposed to endure? First bending then squatting.

The third landed with a thunk. Mitch never looked up, I was so sure I was safe. He was lost in his world of wood cutting, I was clawing my way back from the place I wasn’t supposed to be. The whirring saw blade had headed down to the last bench leg.

And THAT was the moment. The moment Mitch felt it too. A teeny-tiny millisecond.

Do you know how I know? Because Mitch cut that final leg half an inch too short. Like someone, or something, had struck him he jerked, slipped and missed the line.

And that was the moment I ran. As his gaze headed up I headed out. I didn’t want to see what would be in them, what could happen next. Alright, that’s like saying a kid doesn’t want to catch Santa. I wanted to, so bad.

Which just propelled me out of there faster.

Chapter Three

Now it Gets Complicated

Not that I could do anything about it, and that’s what made it torture. My brain wished I could go back and choose to go home. No, to go even further back and choose a different day to go to the Glade, to maybe have taken the girls on my own. But my heart loves it, and it has a totally different idea of what I should do about it. Unfortunately, I also discover my self-control muscle has the strength of a dead moth. Which means rather than spending less time with him like I should, I keep doing everything we’ve always done, but with a whole new layer of breathtaking discovery.

Today we’re at my place, studying in the dining room. Or trying to, anyway. Even though our books are spread out, our laptops powered up, not a lot of learning is happening. In part because my siblings are a rabble that keeps overflowing from the lounge room and somersaulting past our chairs. In part because Noah keeps cruising YouTube for hilarious clips of ‘real’ Werewolf sightings.

But mostly because of the distracting way Mitch’s eyes seek mine, deepwater blue deeper and bluer every time. Asking me the question I want to answer in a much different way. It takes every muscle locked in place to keep me from diving in.

“Did you see the latest Marvel is out?”

I drag my gaze back to my English essay. “Yeah, reviews weren’t awesome though.”

“He has a cameo.”

Son of a crumbcake, he knows me too well. I shrug, pretending I don’t care that he knows that any mention of Captain America has me leaping for the car keys, that I don’t give a happy meal that he just propped his elbow on the table and cupped his chin, leaning forward. I ignore the sensation of soaring in my chest as the distance between us shrinks.

“Maybe we should check it out.”

Ah, no. I glance up at Noah, but he’s focused and grinning at his laptop. I look back at Mitch to find his smile losing its momentum. As deepwater blue develops breathtaking currents my own smile dies on my lips. Definitely no. Yes. YES. YES!

But I can’t.

“Yeah sure.” Mitch’s eyes light up like fireworks. “Noah, you coming?”

Noah looks up, taking a few seconds to register what’s been said. He glances from me to Mitch, then back again. I’m not sure if it’s the guilt that I’m using my childhood bestie as a buffer or the light dying in Mitch’s eyes, but there’s a sensation that feels like sour milk in my belly. I look away, knowing that I, we, can’t go on like this.

“Tara, can you change Christa for me?” I glance through to the lounge room where Mom is sitting in her rocker, grimacing as little Breanna climbs her big belly like a mountain. Flora is screaming like a stuck chipmunk because there isn’t any room to join her. Christa streaks past, wild red hair bouncing, her wet diaper hanging precariously on her chubby hips.

Relief has me shooting up and in the lounge, diaper in hand, before Mom can blink. “Sure.”

Noah chooses that moment to do a Houdini, something about leaving a book in his truck — for the studying he wasn’t doing.

But the determination I’ve always admired in Mitch rears its unhelpful head. “Need a hand with that?”

I nab Christa on her return run, heading for a clear space on the lounge room floor. “I got it.”

I need to think of my pack. My responsibility.

From nowhere, Mr. Puddles whacks me in the face. I really regret buying that darned duck. It looked so fluffy and yellow and cute sitting on the toy store shelf. There was no way anyone could have known it was possessed. Mr. Puddles hits the ground and Christa keeps going, her diaper dangerously close to giving into gravity.

Dark brows high, Mitch comes to kneel beside me. “I can tell.”

Mitch grabs Mr. Puddles, lays him on his back and takes another diaper. “Mr. Puddles, hold still.” Furry yellow wings flop and flap on the ground as Mr. Puddles makes a darned good show of resisting. Thank Thor his squeaker died on about the third tumble through the washing machine.

Christa’s back in an instant, wide eyed and laughing. Mitch turns to my little sister. “Christa, can you show him how it’s done?”

With Mitch as puppeteer, Mr. Puddles jumps to his feet and makes a show of trying to run away. Mitch makes such a comedy of hauling the stuffed toy back that I have to stifle my giggles as I tut and frown at the duck’s irresponsible behavior. Man I wish I could bottle the citrus cinnamon deliciousness beside me.

Suffice to say, Christa lays down, talking Mr. Puddles through everything he has to do to get his diaper changed. When we’re done, the duck has an over-sized white butt, Christa is no longer in danger of water bombing the house…and I’m another five miles deeper in love with Mitch.

Mitch leans back, those competent strong hands resting on his thighs, currents of blue turning from laughter to something more. Emotions start to swirl around us, a vortex that I have so little control over.

I look up to find his smile losing momentum. “Hey, you want to —”

Dad chooses that moment to come in, like he sensed his plans were under threat. Whatever he sees, me leaning into citrus and cinnamon, Mitch pulling me in with nothing but a look, has his bushy red brows flat-lining.

“Tara.”

I try really hard not to jump the jump of the guilty, but I straighten and turn, definitely lacking grace or finesse. I look up, and seeing as Dad is the size of Everest, it takes a good few seconds for my hazel eyes to meet his. “Yes, Dad?”

Dad crosses his arms, red bushy brows coming down, practically blending with his lion mane beard. “Let’s head out.”

“It’s not too early?”

I knew today was our monthly visit, but we’ve always gone on twilight. Never during the late afternoon like he’s suggesting.

That has Dad’s brows heading back up. I feel myself still. I’ve just questioned him…in front of Mitch. And as much as he’s my childhood friend, Dad would never forget Mitch’s defining characteristic. He’s a Phelan…and a Beta Phelan at that. I don’t look at Mitch as I shoot to my feet. “I’ll get stuff organized.”

Dad grunts and heads to the garage.

“Bye, Mr. Phelan.”

Dad pauses at Mitch’s words. He turns in the hallway, his big body making the space look narrow. “Goodbye, Mitch.”

I look away. If it had been Noah, Dad would have thanked him for his help, I have a sneaking suspicion he may have even considered smiling. But Mitch isn’t the Alpha heir, and one thing Dad believes and enforces is the hierarchy. With that he turns and leaves.

Mitch studies me for a moment. We don’t need to say anything. Mitch and Noah have spent enough time in my house to know what it’s like. I’ve spent enough time at theirs to know it’s not the norm. But I’m also one of the few that understands why.

“You —”

I put my hand up. “I know, we’ve been over it.”

Although they know Dad’s thou-shalt-obey-and-you-don’t-get-to-question tendencies, neither Mitch nor Noah like it. But it’s a testament to the power of our friendship that even though it pees them off they still come over, knowing I need to help out with my younger sisters.

I walk to the door, knowing there’s no point going over old material, and Mitch follows. I’m just about to open it when Noah comes barging through. He pulls up short of bowling me over, understanding dawning on his face. “Party’s over huh?”

I flash a smile, knowing there’s no joy behind it. “Yeah, gotta go do firstborn duty.”

Noah quirks a brow, seeing as we’re technically in the same boat. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

His words have been dipped and drowned in sarcasm. We’re both firstborns. The only thing that differentiates us is our gender. And how our Alpha fathers define that…

I turn away. I’ve never been one to moan about the glass half empty. I step back, letting Mitch pass through, knowing he’s trying to catch my gaze. But I pretend my head’s already in the clearing I’ll be heading to, giving a distracted wave as I turn and walk away.

The door shuts on Noah’s words. “When I’m Alpha, there won’t be any —”

I head to the garage, because I’ll be crying over the milk that’s been spilt from that half-full glass if I let myself imagine the ending to that sentence.

The walk out our backyard and into the forest is silent, like it always is. Dad is an Alpha of few words. To be honest, there really isn’t much to say. Dad has taught us all from a young age our role and responsibility in the pack. His role and responsibility as the Alpha. You don’t need words to do what needs to be done.

Unfortunately, that means way too much thinking time. My artist’s mind flashes all the images of Mitch, getting less and less subtle. The next canvas has Noah looking at me with his thoughtful, serious gaze. How long before this futile attraction causes a strain on the one pillar in my life I’d always assumed was unbreakable?

As we head deeper and deeper, the trunks becoming thicker and closer together, the solution that germinated not long after the complication arose shoots off another root. Every time Mitch asks, every time Noah looks, each and every stinkin’-freakin’-bleepin’ time Dad frowns, it grows a little. Every one of those moments fertilizer for the idea I was doing my darnedest to ignore.

I almost stumble straight into Dad’s boulder sized back when he stops. I pull myself up, knowing he wouldn’t be impressed with a scatterbrained firstborn. I suck in a calming breath. We’ve arrived.

Not many people know I got my artistic side from my Dad. If I were to count them my guess is it would be one - me. His Dad would have known, probably his older brother. But they never got to see what Dad’s created here. Ironically, they’re the ones who inspired it.

Deep in the forest, surrounded by pines, it stands. Partially formed, etched into a boulder the size bigger than the mini-van Mom drives. In layers of grey, light as dawn and dark as dusk, the beginning of a wolf has been carved into the stone. It’s magnificent, breathtaking and humongous.

Once a month Dad works on it. On the fifth of every month. On the day he lost them.

There are few secrets amongst Weres, there are not enough of us to lose track of any relevant information. Everyone knows how Dad lost his brother and his father. That he was the second son, that he was never the Alpha heir.

But they don’t know the ripple effect it had.

I remember Grandfather Garrett. He was strong, powerful and not big in the smiling department. Garrett Junior was though. He loved life and he loved fun. He was the one that gave me piggy backs and sneaky Twinkies when no one was looking. As Dad scrapes and scratches away at the stone, the hardest medium an artist could mold a creation from, he does the one thing most people don’t see much of. He talks. He tells me about the times he went on Alpha duty with his father, while his older brother was in Athens, and fixed newly widowed Adelle’s roof when it caved during a storm. He tells me what a great feeling it was to be the first to expand the Channon pack when Mom got pregnant. He tells me how it was Grandfather Garrett’s dream for the Channons to be strong, possibly the strongest.

Over the year he’s been bringing me I’ve figured out all the things he hasn’t told me. One, Garrett Junior, my uncle, learned to fly a plane as soon he was old enough so he could take his forever smiling personality anywhere but Wilmot. Two, Dad loved being the one Grandfather Garrett depended on. And three? Grandfather didn’t live long enough to see his second son achieve so much for his pack. When he got the news that Garrett Junior died when his small plane went down over some remote corner of our planet, he sat down and pretty much didn’t get back up. It took a month — Garret Junior was lost to the Peruvian Jungle on the fifth of May, Garrett Senior let out his last relieved breath on the fifth of June so he could go join him.

The memorial is beautiful. Dad uses the natural lines of the rock, like this slab of stone was always supposed to be a wolf. With nothing but a hammer and chisel, month after month, he creates what he wants his pack to be.

Without pausing, as I sit and watch the rhythmic tap, tap, scrape, he asks. “Why stone, Tara?”

“Because it’s strong.”

Tap, tap, scrape. “What makes it strong?”

“Because all the parts create one.”

He steps back, surveying the flowing line of the shoulder he’s etching out. “Yes. And when something is strong?”

“It endures.”

“Exactly.” He says like we haven’t gone through this script on a monthly basis. “It outlasts the rest.”

“The Channons will always stand strong, Dad.”

Tap, tap, scrape. Dad once again loses himself in his creation. He’s also never said that building his wolf memorial is a metaphor. An Alpha molding his pack. I’m not sure if he realizes it himself. But I know. I know that’s what Dad wants to do, to build something bigger and stronger and more powerful than Weres thought possible.

Now that would sure show Garrett Senior.

“Tara.”

I’m startled from the hypnotic tap, tap, scrape. “Yeah?”

“You are a good, strong Channon.”

I glance down so Dad doesn’t see what those words do to me. A firstborn isn’t supposed to happy dance.

“As a firstborn you know your place and your responsibility.”

That brings the happy dance to a halt. Sure I’m a first born, but I’m a girl, which basically makes me a princess. All the responsibility of a leader, with none of the power.

Tap, tap, scrape. “You need to know. If this child is a girl…”

I look back up, we’re deviating from our standard script, and I have no idea where this is going. With seven girls, the odds aren’t great.

“I’ll name you Alpha heir.”

You could bowl me over with the specks of rock dust that catch on the breeze. “Alpha heir?”

The tapping and scraping never stops, like this isn’t some life changing conversation. “Yes. It will be a significant responsibility, but one I feel I have prepared you well for.”

I’m glad he isn’t looking at me, because the cyclone of emotions on my face isn’t firstborn material. If the baby is a girl…a disappointment that Dad experienced with me and has been repeated six times after that. It’s what’s driven Dad to have child after child. To wear Mom into the ground.

But if it’s a girl, I would be named the Alpha heir. I would get a say. I would have the power to choose!

I keep my butt where it is, my hands from fist pumping, and my heart from hollering to the sky. The solution that had taken root shrivels a little as the possibility for a future, one I hadn’t let myself dream of, begins to coalesce in vibrant color.

“As the firstborn you will lead the Channons. You will bond with one who will continue what I have built.”

Which technically was always my role, but now I would get some choice. “I’ll always put the pack first, Dad.”

He stops and turns. The silence frames his words. “I know.”

Dad glances back at the partially carved rock. “Maybe today memorializes the future.” I look up at his lion mane face, wondering what he’s suggesting. “Want to go for a run?”

I can’t help the smile that finally breaks free. “Ah, rhetorical.”

Dad grins in that big, bushy beard of his.

We head back to the house, silent as always, but for the first since THE moment I start to paint a new painting in my mind. It’s bright, open and awash in light. It’s a painting of hope.

We get to the house and Dad indicates with his head we’ll walk around. With a wink (yes, a wink!) he makes a line for his truck. Dad’s playing hooky?

I can’t help but smile; this is a side of Dad I haven’t seen. We climb in and drive off without even telling Mom where we’re going. Silence hugs us once again as we head to the Glade, but this time it’s lighter. Not quite so serious. It holds the promise of a future I want to be part of.

We’re almost there, zooming down the highway, when Dad slows. He’s seen what I’ve seen.

Holy brown bananas…

There, just meters away from the turn-off, a sleek grey car is pulled off the highway. In front of it there’s a man, in a suit, banging in a sign. Our slow movement forward gives ample time for our sharp Were eyes to take in what it says.

FOR SALE

And to process the words stamped over those two.

UNDER OFFER

What the —

Dad jerks the wheel and we pull over, braking hard over the gravel. He’s out of the car before I’ve got my seat belt off. I have to hurry to follow his gigantor strides.

The man’s eyes widen as he takes in the size of my father striding toward him. He straightens, keeping his hammer close to his chest.

Dad’s voice is quiet and controlled as he asks the question. “What are you doing?”

Mr. Real Estate swallows. “Ah, putting up a for sale sign.”

I roll my eyes, thanks Captain Obvious. Dad’s frown has moved into the land of ferocious. “You’ve made a mistake. This is public land, it’s not for sale.”

Another swallow tightens Mr. Real Estate’s throat. “This lot has been released by the federal government with recent legislation change.” He straightens, gaining momentum. “It opens up acres of land for state or private use, agriculture, tourism. Just think about the opportunities.”

Private use!

Dad sucks in a breath, stepping forward. The man goes from confident sales pitch back to cowering. Smart choice if you ask me. “How is this possible?”

The man steps back and with a bit of distance, maybe because he’s closer to his car, angles his chin. “The bill has passed sir, the land went up for sale a week ago.”

I frown, how did we not know about this? How is it already under offer? My Were senses pick up the scent of something fishy.

Dad’s eyes flicker to the two words on the sign that feel like nails in coffin. “Who?”

“I can’t disclose that sort of information, sir.”

Dad steps forward, looming over the idiot. I know this next question won’t be asked quietly. “Who?”

The man ducks like he can avoid the tornado of anger that Dad roars at him. Pretending he has some pride left he straightens, tugs at his jacket and raises his chin again. “Like I said, that information is confidential.”

And with that he power walks — not quite a run but certainly no hanging around to see what the angry bear will do next — straight to his car.

The car’s brake lights have disappeared around a bend before Dad moves again.

He looks at me and his hazel eyes have turned to stone.

This is bad. Uber bad.

Chapter Four

It’s Decided

Our house, full at the best of times, overflows with Weres the next day. All Channons, all angry at the threat we never considered we’d have to face. The Glade borders a national park, firmly nestled in a pocket of federal land. It’s the safest place it could be short of us owning it ourselves, which has never been possible, nor affordable.

They all crowd in our lounge, frowns and crossed arms abounding.

There are few females here. The Channons align themselves closely with their animal side and the power and strength of males. Mom sits behind Dad, looking even more pale than usual. There’s the odd wife, me and Adelle. Adelle is noticeable for two reasons. She’s a widow, so isn’t here with a mate, just her son Seth who’s a few years older than me. And she never left the sixties. Which is hilarious, because she’s my Dad’s age so she’s never actually been there. It doesn’t stop her from wearing a lot of crochet tops and tie-dyed skirts, or from devoting herself to any good cause she comes across.

She also breaks conventions like they’re spaghetti sticks. Slicing through the somber mood she wraps me in incense and smiles. “Tara, the Change suits you.”

I hug her back; when your mom is permanently tired or diaper changing, you don’t get a lot of these. “Thanks Adelle. How’s the raptor sanctuary going?”

“Wonderfully darling girl, they do such amazing work there.”

Seth stands back, arms crossed but the smile that you can’t help but sprout around Adelle growing on his face. “Yes well, you did raise five thousand dollars, Mom.”

Adelle pats his cheek as she breezes past. “With the help of some very committed people dear.”

Seth’s glance as he follows his mother into the lounge room is one I’ve seen many times before. Exasperated, willing to indulge her modesty, proud.

With the last of us jammed into the lounge room, Dad fills his big barrel chest with a breath. It’s all everyone needs to know that he’s about to talk and the room falls silent. He looks around at the representatives of his pack. “You all know why we’re here and what we have to stop.”

The room explodes as emotion overflows. Chris, one of the ones who was at the head of the pack when I ran with them for the first time not so long ago, snarls. “Greedy bastards.”

Keith, an old grizzled Were, steps forward. “We can’t lose the Glade. It’s sacred.” He thumps his fist into his palm. “It’s our heritage.”

Seth crosses his arms. “We can’t exactly list it as a culturally sensitive site, can we?”

Adelle places her hand on Seth’s arm, but to be fair, he’s simply aired the crux of our issue. We can’t fight for what the Glade really stands for without risking our secret.

Chris turns back to Dad. “It’s probably loggers, they’ve been trying to get their hands on any land they can for years.”

Keith snarls. “And buying it in secret is just what the lying cheats would do.”

Grunts of agreement rise around the room and quite a few Weres shuffle. I feel my hands fist, the fury that Dad has been venting all morning pulsing in my palms.

Dad nods, silent as his pack vents their anger, waiting for them to say their piece.

Adelle, the one female voice with the courage to believe its equal, asks the question we’re here to answer. “How do we stop them, Kurt?”

The room goes quiet as everyone turns to Dad. Dad never falters under the weight of those stares and Alpha responsibility. “Adam Phelan is talking to the mayor to see if he can find any legal loopholes.”

Seth shakes his head. “That could take months.”

Everyone’s silent. We don’t have weeks let alone months.

“The Phelans have always been peacemakers, negotiators.” Standing at the back of the room something tightens in my chest. Why does he make that sound like a bad thing? “But we need to act now.”

A few feet shuffle, a couple of backs straighten but no one speaks. They’re waiting to see what we’ll do.

Dad nods, a slow, very deliberate action. “People need to know. We’ll make some noise, go public, get the media involved.” Dad isn’t shrinking, he’s growing, practically expanding with this newfound purpose. “They’ll discover the Channons are a power you don’t want to come up against.”

The chests around the room expand too, heads nodding, mouths tightening. The Channons have a plan. Hands come up, people offering to do pamphlet drops, Chris works at the local newspaper so he can run an article. Adelle bustles as she coordinates a day and time for us to protest. Within half an hour the testament of the power of the pack grows in my lounge room. The loggers will never be able to overcome the community outcry they’ll face.

Dad stands at the door as the representatives of each family leave. Adelle slips her arm around my shoulder. “Tara, I need you to do something for me.”

I look at her expectantly.

“I need some placards.”

I nod, happy to be using my skills. “What do you want them to say?”

Adelle drums her fingers on her chin. “Weres were here first?”

I smile. “Which would be great if it wasn’t for those secrecy laws.”

“I thought you’d say that. How about ‘protect what you love’?”

“I like it. I’ll start on it tonight.”

Adelle pats my arm as she moves away. “I knew I could depend on you.”

It’s only once everyone is gone that Mom speaks. She’s so quiet, the proverbial wallflower, her voice a strained whisper. “Kurt?”

Dad, his head still with his pack, doesn’t hear her at first. Maybe it’s my quick footed walk to her side that catches his attention, maybe he registers the strain in her voice when she says his name again, but he’s instantly beside her. “Lara.”

Mom looks up, the significance of what’s about to happen shining from her soft blue eyes. I’m just not sure if it’s the fact that this is the last pregnancy she’ll have to go through, or that this could be the time she finally bears him a son. “It’s time.”

Dad, that solid exterior actually a little ruffled, practically carries Mom to the car. Mom’s last labor was only three hours — her body knows how to pop ‘em out by now.

“Tara.” He races past, grabbing the bag that’s been sitting by the front door for the past three weeks. Packed with what it’s always been packed with — Mom’s clothes, diapers, the hand-me-down pink grow suit, the never-been-used blue one.

“I’ve got it Dad. The little ones are in bed, we’ll be fine.”

His hazel gaze catches mine for a moment, strained and so, so plainly heart-wrenching. This is his last opportunity for the Alpha heir he’s always wanted to prove he could have.

Once the door is shut I look at it, not knowing what my heart is wishing for right now, but not willing to look too closely to find out. I turn and head down the hall, typing as I walk. Soz, can’t come over tonight. Mom just went to the hospital.

Mitch, Noah and I had agreed to meet up after our respective pack meetings to compare notes. There’s a bling almost simultaneously from our group chat. What are you going to name your all girls baseball team?

Then another bling. The Channon Chooks?

And another. Although if any of you take after your dad it’ll be the Channon Chewbaccas!

I shake my head, Noah’s having an entire conversation with himself. Mitch’s response has my eyes widening. Great news. We’ll come to you then.

Crapbuckets. My heart rate picks up a notch. I learnt many years ago, right about the time we were six and I gave Noah a haircut, that I’m really bad at lying. But I don’t get a chance because my cell dings again.

Can’t little bro, found out I couldn’t hang out anyway. Dad needs me.

Which is code for Alpha duty, probably something to do with this latest development. My sigh of relief bounces off the hallway walls. That would have meant just me and Mitch. Alone.

As I stand at the back door I type quickly. All good, I’m all settled in for a quiet one anyway.

Cool, let us know when you’ve got the last member of the Channon Cheetahs.

On the back patio I wait, but there’s nothing. No response from Mitch.

When I don’t hear anything back I tell myself it’s a good thing.

I head to my easel, letting the familiar feeling of being centered wash over me. I’ve created with color since the moment my chubby fingers could wrap around a crayon, but discovering the marvelous invention they call paint was a life changer for me. I never got into the abstract — there’s no existential, metaphysical level to my paintings. I use nothing but the colors of life, I paint what I love. Try it peeps - capturing the beauty that makes up the world onto a canvas calms your farm like nothing else.

I start on the placards, I really do. But once the colors start talking to me, pointing out how the browns love to connect with greens, that capturing the color of sunlight is a challenge I love to step up to, I swap canvases. The image of the Glade, on THE day, is still so bright and strong in my mind. Within the space of a breath I’m lost. Lost in a world of possibilities that I can create, in a world where I am master…in colors like citrus and cinnamon.

“I like it.”

“Holy snap dragons!” My paintbrush goes flying and I almost drop the glorified piece of wood I call my palette. Mitch is leaning in the door way, arms crossed, hot bod leaning against the door jamb. “What are you trying to do, scare the Were out of me?”

He grins and steps forward, making me wonder how long he’s been there. “Sorry.”

I snort as I bend to pick up the paintbrush that’s now left a green splatter on the floor — he doesn’t sound sorry. I grab a rag and swipe at it and as I stand two things hit me. Mitch’s eyes telling me that he watched the bending over, possibly almost as intensely as I watch him, followed closely by the knowledge that we’re alone.

As in no one else, unaccompanied by the protection of a chaperon, as in I think everyone else just disappeared off the face of this planet kind of alone.

My heart starts to thump and I’m forced to swallow before I can speak. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to know what’s wrong.”

That has me freezing. He’s guessed? “Nothing’s wrong.”

His head quirks as even two words can’t pass my lips with the ring of truth. He holds up his phone. “You wanted a quiet night in? Just tell me, is it terminal?”

Relief has me smiling. “I’m not sick. Just tired.”

Mitch’s eyes crinkle with concern. “The stuff about the Glade?”

I blink, knowing that’s what’s supposed to be on my mind. The images of the Channons in the lounge, angry and unsettled, plants my brain firmly back with my pack. “It’s not good.”

“We’ll stop them, you’ll see.”

I look back at the painting. What part of me was preserving our heritage, and what part was preserving the memory of when I fell for Mitch? “It’s too important not to.”

Mitch takes the final steps in and even though I’m on the back porch without the boundaries of walls the air around me shrinks. I step away, towards the placards Adelle requested. “I’m making these. It looks like we’ll be protesting.”

Mitch rubs his lower lip in the same way his father and brother do, but somehow it only manages to look sexy on him. “Great idea.”

“Yeah, I might need to borrow some of Adelle’s outfits and start living in trees.” I whip up a smile a game-show hostess would be jealous of. Keep it light, kick him out. Then I’m not tempted to find out if those lips are as delicious as they look and destroy what I know has been my fate from the moment the Phelan boys were born. Unless Mom has a girl…I have to consciously throw that thought from my mind. I won’t be the person who wishes away my father’s only desire.

But the thought is like a freakin’ boomerang. Unless it’s a girl…

Mitch moves over to one of my older paintings. It’s a scene of the river we canoed in spring through summer. It’s when I first started experimenting with wet on wet, a fascinating technique that creates layers and eddies of color. Where you can show how deep water can run, how much mystery it holds.

“I love your paintings.” He turns to me. “I can spend ages thinking I’ve figured them out, and then bam,” those blue eyes hold me hostage as he takes a step closer. I need him to stop but I can’t find the words to tell him, “You get hit with something you didn’t see before.”

Jeepers. Not light, not light at all. I swallow. “Ah, thanks.”

Mitch takes another step and there really isn’t enough air in this outdoor room. “Have you ever had that?”

I blink. “Had what?”

Mitch moves, filling my senses as he closes the distance between us. Citrus and cinnamon. Deepwater blue. Lips twitching like they’d like to smile but there’s a bigger, deeper emotion taking over. “See something in a new light?” His voice dips and drops. “Or someone.”

I swallow, wishing I could run away and knowing I’m lying. Mitch’s eyes are searching mine and in that moment, I forget to hide, I glory in the heat and passion that’s leaping and surging between us.

“Tara.” Sweet snapples, my name sounds good on his lips, colored by the emotion I can see mirrored in his eyes. “I need to ask you —”

My phone rings, practically puncturing the tension that has built up around us. The breath that had dissolved from my body finds life again. I step back, my mind whirring with how close I just came to betraying my father, every other cell screaming for me to go back. “I need to get that.”

Mitch’s lips purse but he nods. I step back again, trying to make sure I sever the emotions that had been twining around us. I glance down at my phone, my eyes stinging with the physical pain. Dad’s name is flashing like a digital warning bell across my screen.

Unless…

I swallow, not knowing what I’m wishing for anymore. I’m pretty darned proud that my voice is almost normal when I answer. “So I’m a big sister again, huh?”

“Tara.” Dad chokes up, at a loss for words.

My hand slackens and I have to consciously tighten it so I don’t drop the phone. A second later I have to do the same thing with my knees. Dad doesn’t need to say anything else.

His tone says it all.

I now know what my future will be.

Chapter Five

The Solution

The moment Kurt Junior was born my options were slashed down to one. As my heart screamed there must be another way, I knew there wasn’t. I was now nothing more than the first-born daughter of the Alpha. And so I made the decision that had to be made for all of us.

I can’t be around Mitch.

And I’ve had legitimate reasons to avoid him for a whole week — Mom’s got a new baby and six other children she needs help with. It’s understandable that I answer texts with ‘can’t talk’ and that my phone calls are cut short as I chase after younger siblings. It’s totally reasonable that I stay home — alone — every night because I’m tired.

Everyone else’s life continues. Dad is so happy; he has his son. Mom is so happy; her child bearing years are over. My sisters love doting on the one they know is so special.

Thankfully, no one notices that I am quietly and desperately miserable.

Of course then Dad had to organize a celebration party. This included all of the Channons, but also the Phelans. I know it’s just as important that he show off his son to our neighboring pack. The ones who are friends, but in some subtle way I’ve never understood, a threat.

So now I’m getting ready to see him. I look in the mirror at the hollow girl looking back at me, wearing the same dress I wore to the last family get-together. The statue staring back at me knows. She knows I miss Mitch. The laughter, the friendship. The potential that was radiating from his eyes, his mouth…

She also misses Noah and the Phelans and life being easy.

But it’s unmistakable in the form that dominates the mirror — I’m the firstborn, but a girl. Which means responsibility and little voice. So I dress my younger sisters and run plates of food out to the back yard, the whole time counting down the minutes; anticipation and dread kung-fu fighting in my stomach.

I know the moment they arrive, because I’ve been skulking in the kitchen, pretending to slice cucumbers, but really spying on everyone filing through the door, ooing and aahing over my baby brother. Mitch’s parents come in first, Adam and Beth saying all the right things as my Dad’s chest threatens to explode. Noah is all Alpha-heir as he shakes hands. Mitch does the niceties but the moment they’re done his eyes start scanning.

My breath sucks in and I go to move but I’m not quick enough. He finds me and I freeze. Sweet smurfs, across the distance I register two things. He looks good. Really darned good. And I’ve known him long enough to know he looks determined.

Like he’s winding in a line he starts walking towards me, and I’m relieved to see that Noah joins him.

“Hey guys.” I smile brightly.

Noah engulfs me in a hug. “Long time no see. I was worried you got that same haircut when we were ten and wouldn’t show yourself in public.”

I laugh and it constricts my chest. “No way, lesson learned that red hair doesn’t like to be turned green.”

I turn to Mitch. Please, please don’t make me touch him. I haven’t decided if it’s a blessing or a curse that I never got to experience that delight. Sure, I’ve hugged Mitch, I’ve curled up to watch TV with him. But now, since THE moment, a touch would be so different, so much more.

“Hi, Mitch.”

“You look good, Tara.”

I curtsy, subtly taking a step backward as I do.

Noah’s brows tangle quizzically. Maybe not so subtle…He glances at Mitch then back at me.

There’s a squeal then a splash then a wail. “Taaaraaa.”

Right there and then, despite all the jams I’ve had to pull him out of, I thank the gods of stuffed animals for the day Mr. Puddles came into my life. “Gotta go.”

And I’m outta there faster than a Were with its tail on fire.

The rest of the party I mingle with my pack and with the Phelans, always as far from Mitch as I can. I catch glimpses of him, laughing with Noah, talking to Dana. He’s there when his mom coos over Kurt Junior. Once he catches me looking. Those blue eyes grab me and the people around me fade and blur. When the moment hangs on longer than it really should — because I can’t bring myself to move — his lips tip up. Something moves in those deepwater eyes, and it propels me. That flash is why I’m doing this.

I can’t give him hope. I’m grieving for the future that has played out in the wishful thinking part of my brain. I’m hurting for what can never be. Mitch needs to believe it was never a possibility.

I spend the entire night acting like I’ve orchestrated this whole party. The moment a plate is down to only a couple of sausages I head inside for more. The pitchers of juice are like bottomless wells as I keep them topped up. Mom gets to sit and bask in the glow of her pack’s pride as I feed, clean and care for my siblings.

I see Mitch about five times more than I’d like. The first, I pretend I don’t see him, despite the fact I know every move he makes. The second time I pass him I’m juggling two plates of salad. When he offers to help I shake my head and point out I’ve got the Were strength to do this and keep going before he can reply. By the third and fourth he’s starting to frown. But I finally put having so many little sisters to good use — like when Flora needs her steak cut up and Christa conveniently needs a diaper change.

The fifth was the hardest. Mitch had materialized from the crowd as I headed back to the kitchen. That determined look hadn’t left his frowning eyes. “Do you have a second?”

I hadn’t stopped walking. “Ah, the coleslaw actually ran out, I’m going to whip up another batch.”

Mitch’s dark brows lift. I don’t think he’s ever seen me make coleslaw half way through a party. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself make coleslaw ever. “I wanted to talk.”


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