“I need a minute, file out please,” I commanded, sitting back in my tattered leather desk chair, scratching my almost full beard. Rubbing my belly, I tried to scour away the itch of frustration, to no avail. Frustration was my leech and its teeth penetrated deep. I really should take better care of myself. But my appearance reflected my attitude of late, ragged, teetering on the edge of mania. I’d gone too long without a haircut, opting instead for buzzing the sides myself and letting the top grow longer than I’d ever let it before. “Yes, Alpha,” they all replied, swiftly moving from the cedar paneled office—except River. As more than my beta, my best friend, he always thought himself exempt from most orders, and he was. I frequently needed an ear that felt like it was on my side, and not just because the rules told him he had to be. My father had been Alpha before me, and his father Alpha before that. Every day I uncovered another piece of the effed up puzzle—the real story of the turmoil my clan was in—the legacy they’d left me. And it seemed while they were excellent Alphas in terms of protecting the lands and growing the clan—they weren’t proficient at financing or piddling things like paying property taxes. They allowed their females no say over anything, which went against everything we were taught as young males. They failed to practice what they preached. Their mates had to grin and bear it. A female probably would’ve pointed out the details that my father and his father ignored. And now, one year after my father died of cancer and my mother followed soon after, I stood in a falling apart house, up to my eyeballs in debt with every male and some female clan members working two and three jobs to help out. My clan was crumbling through my claws. Something has to give. River was the same age as me, though our appearances aged us considerably. He growled out a sigh and plopped down in one of the huge chairs, built specifically for us, thick and sturdy. He beat his hands on the top of his head to some rhythm. He was deciding how to tell me something. “Hawke, we can barely handle what we’ve got. Let’s face it, we are up to our muzzles here. Clan members are paying for bills usually taken care of by clan funds. We are working ourselves to the bone. We do what we can, but it’s just not enough. And now the LaFourche Clan Alpha wants to merge? I don’t know, boss.” I hate when he calls me boss. “I can’t help it. I have no money left after paying over two hundred thousand dollars in property taxes, insurance, flood insurance and everything else we were up to our asses on. The effing government was about to auction off our land. I have little to nothing left.” I stood and took the two steps to the window to face the swamp. I could almost hear the fluttering of the catfish’s fins in the murky bayou, the teeth of the nutra rat chattering, and the bowing branches of the Cypress tree in the beginning winds of a Louisiana thunderstorm. The swamp called to me, begging me to allow it to soothe the beast and the stress. I wished it could. But I didn’t even have time to run anymore—I hadn’t shifted in weeks. The neglect of my inner animal made my skin crawl and itch. Let me out, he pleaded. He didn’t answer my rhetorical plea for him to further his rebuttal, so I continued my side of the debate, “What else can I do? Have you seen the other clan members? They’re as mature as a newborn cub. If I don’t take over as their Alpha, they’ll scatter to the winds. And with the other clans vying for our
land already—they would take over the LaFourche land and be a heartbeat away from our boundaries. I won’t have it.” He grabbed the arms of the chair and leaned forward, and I could see his reflection in the window. “Then something has to give. Things are getting out of hand. We respect you, Alpha and will obey anything you ask of us. But the Betas and clan are restless, the males and the females. You know our ways dictate that our inner animal obey an Alpha pair, not just a male. We need the strength of a pair. If you intend to do this, we should be stronger, at least.” Didn’t I know it? If they were restless for a pair to oversee them—if restless was the word they were using, then I was downright violent with my need for a mate. The craving almost consumed me. My bear needed a mate, and I as an Alpha, needed the balance of a female—plus, even with my warmer body temperature; my bed, of late, seemed to grow colder and colder. But who had time to seek out a mate when the clan was in a spiral of disorganization and failure? It wasn’t like there was a dating and mating website for bear shifters. If there had been, its mascot would have been that yellow Care Bear with the heart on its stomach. The commercial would have him doing the Care Bear stare or some shit. I hated Care Bears. Why am I thinking about Care Bears? I knew he could feel my malcontent over bringing up the issue of a mate, so he relented and moved on. “There’s another issue, Alpha.” I turned to my friend with a fake smile, “Oh great, what more?” “There’s been a report of a black bear, a rogue, in South Dakota. She seems to be part of a grizzly clan, but is not mated. They have seen her working on clan lands and running perimeters on their boundaries at all times of the night.” I shrugged, “It’s the female’s choice if she wants to keep clan with grizzlies.” “The thing is—she’s thin—worn. The wolf pack Alpha who reported her says she’s unhealthy. He says he can see her ribs when she shifts and she’s maybe eighteen or nineteen but none of the kids in his pack have ever seen her in school. And they all attend school together up there, shifter and human. He assumes—he assumes she’s being held captive. He sent a formal request that you visit and see for yourself as the Alpha over all bear Alphas.” I snorted in his direction, “I’m sure the grizzlies would be much obliging.” “They don’t have a choice. We outrank them. Black bears outrank Grizzlies, you know that. They have no choice but to grant you entrance.” Of course I knew that. I was just grasping at straws, trying to talk my way out of going to South Dakota for any reason. “How can I leave now, with the clan in turmoil?” “It will take us three days. It’s not gonna fall apart in three days. If she is what the wolf says she is, then we have to save her. We protect our own.” I slammed my fist down on the table, more in frustration with the entire situation than towards my Beta. He jumped anyway, “I know we protect our own. Make the arrangements with the rest of the clan. I want you and Flint on my flank. Three days, no more.” He didn’t answer with words, simply bowed his head in acknowledgement. I couldn’t believe this. I was in the middle of a turf struggle, on the verge of taking on a new clan, and trying to calm the mate-craving animal inside me—and there was a lone female in cold South Dakota who’d gotten herself kidnapped and enslaved. Perfect.
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