Hi! Thanks for stopping by to read my story. Please note that this is the "rough draft" version. The final COPYRIGHTED version is now available at both smashwords and feedbooks under the pen name Nicky Charles. It is a free download and even has a cover!

Thanks to everyone who voted for this story at SKoW. 'Marla' won both the People's Choice and Judges Pick for best villian!

Sorry to delay the reading of this story but I have to leave one more message. This story has already been plagiarized and/or posted on various sights (wattpad, mibba etc) TEN times. I'm really, really, really getting tired of this. On each occasion the plagiarist has been caught and their accounts deleted.

What is plagiarism? It's taking a story and pretending you wrote it. It doesn't matter if you change the characters names or change them from werewolves to vampires or make Elise a cheerleader (yes, someone did that) or even if you reword the story but keep the same order of events and general plot premise. You are STEALING my intellectual property.

This story is copyrighted. As of this moment (July 7, 2011) it is one of the most downloaded stories on ibooks, feedbooks, smashwords, barnes & noble, sony, kobo... If you are thinking of taking my story - DONT. It is very well recognized and you will be caught!

Okay, now on with the tale...

Chapter 1

She lay beside him, staring blankly at the ceiling. The deed was done. They were mated. It didn't matter that she had no love for him nor he for her. Political alliances were more important than feelings, or so she had been told. That fact was cold comfort right now as her heart broke within her.

Beside her, he stirred and she sensed him rolling over, his amber eyes staring at her. She made no move to look at him and instead tried to steady her breathing. It was no use. As she inhaled, her breath quivered betraying her emotional state. Despite blinking rapidly, a stray tear trailed down her cheek.

The covers rustled beside her and then she felt his finger move across her cheek, catching the tear. "I'm sorry, Elise." Kane's voice was deep yet gentle.

"It doesn't matter." She answered quietly, still staring at the ceiling. What he was apologising for, she was unsure. For mating her? For the inevitable pain the first time brought? For the fact that she was now bound to him for the rest of her life, despite her love for another? Perhaps he was sorry for all three, yet they were as beyond his control as they were hers. She swallowed hard. "It couldn't be helped."

"No, it couldn't," he agreed, sighing heavily. His arm slipped around her waist and drew her closer. She let her cheek rest against his muscular chest, too spent to protest; the sound of his steady heartbeat faintly comforting. "I wish I could have given you more time to get to know me before we mated, but the Elders are awaiting proof of our union."

She felt heat flood her cheeks at the thought of the blood stained sheets being examined as proof of her virginity. It was so old fashioned but it was how things were done to ensure the blood lines between the packs were truly mixed. Heaven forbid she'd come into the relationship tainted with another male's pup in her belly. Well, there could be no doubt now that Kane was her first and only mate.

Tradition or not, it still didn't lessen her embarrassment. All her friends and family would see and know the intimacy that had occurred between her and Kane. Worst of all, Bryan—the one she loved—would know as well.

Closing her eyes, scenes from the past day flashed through her mind. She'd just returned from a run with Bryan where they'd frolicked and played in the cool shaded woods that surrounded her home. He'd been her best friend since they were pups and recently the friendship had grown into something more. Bryan had hinted that he would ask her father for permission to become her mate and she'd been thrilled at the idea. Many of her friends were already mated and, as her nineteenth birthday approached, she was becoming restless, eager to experience bonding with another.

Already, she'd gone through two heat cycles but her father had held off choosing her a mate. Elise had naively thought he was waiting for her to find someone who suited her. Ruefully, she now acknowledged that was never the case. While her father loved her, he was first and foremost their Alpha and had to put the well-being of the pack ahead of all else. Her older brother and sister had mated with packs to the north and south. With the sea at their back, it was only to the east that an alliance was needed. When Kane became the new Alpha of that territory, the Elders determined that a mating between the packs was needed to ensure continued stability.

That day, as she returned laughing at something Bryan had said, Jake, her father's Beta, had greeted her at the door. "Elise, you are needed in the assembly room."

Something in his tone of voice warned her that all was not well. With a slight wave to her friend, she followed Jake, wondering what could possible require her presence. The assembly room was used on occasion for general pack meetings but usually her father and the council of Elders dealt with all important issues.

As she pushed the door open, a cacophony of emotions hit her. Excitement, worry, curiosity... She was sensitive to moods and puzzled over the strange mixture. Her eyes scanned the room. The Elders seemed excited and pleased and were conversing with another group of older persons who were strangers to her. Her father was frowning and talking to a man of about twenty-five. Elise hadn't encountered him before and took a moment to study this new arrival.

The man was taller than her father, at least six foot four, and powerfully built. His shoulders were broad and muscles could be seen rippling beneath his shirt as he moved, gesturing to make some point. Dark, faintly messy hair topped a pleasing face, with sculpted cheeks and a full bottom lip. Possibly sensing her inspection of him, he glanced toward the door and his amber eyes locked on hers. There was a hard edge about him. Slowly he studied her from head to foot, lingering on her breasts and then her hips, before returning to her face. Elise felt herself flush under his scrutiny. As he flashed a brief smile at her, she thought she caught a glimpse of softness in his eyes but it was quickly gone. He looked back at her father and continued speaking with him as if dismissing her presence.

Her father glanced her way, sighed and ended the conversation. He walked towards her with a scowl on his face. "Elise, you've been running again, I see."

She glanced at her reflection in a nearby mirror. Her long brown hair was messy and a faint sheen of sweat gave her sun-kissed skin a dewy look. Noting a smudge of dirt on her pert nose, she scrubbed it off. Turning back towards her parent, she gave a sheepish grin aimed at cajoling him out of his mood. "It was too nice a day to stay indoors."

"But what did I tell you? It isn't safe to be out alone in wolf form. It's hunting season and even though our property is posted, the humans don't always heed—"

"I was with Bryan and we didn't go near the edge of the property. We aren't fools, you know."

"Ah...Bryan..." Her father frowned, and then sighed again. "Elise, I have something to tell you. As you might know, the pack to the east has a new Alpha. His name is Kane." He nodded towards the man standing across the room and Elise shot him a glance again before smiling with polite interest at her father's news.

"He's come to meet you?" She wondered why she was being summoned. The politics between the packs had never been a concern to her. Her father didn't involve her in the council meetings, yet clearly she could only assume that the gentlemen in the corner, talking to the Elders of her pack, must be representatives from the eastern group.

"Yes, Kane is here to meet me...and you."

"Me?" Elise couldn't contain her surprise and for some reason, a strange quivering feeling began to develop within in her.

"Yes, you. It has been decided by the Elders that, with a new Alpha in charge, a fresh alliance should be created. Kane is willing. He will be mated to you and our packs will continue to live in peace."

"Mated? To me?" Elise knew her mouth was hanging open on shock. Her eyes darted across the room to see Kane staring at her blandly, his hands behind his back. She looked back at her father. "But...but...Bryan...?"

"Yes, I'm aware you've had your eye on him, but this is for the good of the pack. We need strong alliances so that we can guard against the human threat. As well, allied packs allow access between territories and increase the area in which we have to roam." He stopped speaking and stared at her, then placed his hand on her shoulder. "I know this is a surprise, but don't worry. Kane is a good man. He'll make you a fine mate."

Her mouth had suddenly gone dry and she felt her fists clench at her sides. Was this how her sister had felt when she had found out she'd been bonded to a male from the north? At the time, Elise had only been twelve and had been more excited about the festivities than concerned with her sister's feelings. Now the shoe was on the other foot and she found the fit to be decidedly uncomfortable.

"But that's the old way of thinking! Alliances aren't needed anymore. We've gone beyond pack wars and as for the human threat, most don't even know we exist!" In desperation, she began to toss out facts and opinions to counter the decree that had just been delivered to her.

"Packs co-exist peacefully because of the long-standing tradition of alliances. Family-ties join us together and ensure respect of territories." Her father kept his tone even but Elise knew he didn't enjoy having to explain this to her. He was from the old tradition, as were many in her pack, and expected unquestioning obedience. As the youngest in the family, she'd been treated more leniently than the others; less had been expected of her. Now she could hear the implicit lecture: she should have paid more attention to pack politics—taken an interest in what was going on—if she had, she would already know these things...

He continued to speak. "And the human threat is still real. Not so much that they know we exist, but that they continually try to encroach on our territories. We need to be united and stand firm against selling our land to developers."

Elise opened her mouth to protest again but her father's stern look had her shutting it, leaving the words unspoken. It was useless to protest. The Elders had decided and the Alpha had concurred with the decision. To go against the edicts of the pack would result in being cast out. Elise had lived her whole life in a pack. The concept of being alone was unthinkable, yet the idea of mating with a total stranger was also abhorrent. "When?" She managed to pronounce one word.

"Tonight. There is no use in waiting. Kane and his council are here. A dinner is being prepared and the rest of the pack is being notified. We'll conduct the ceremony as the moon rises."

Three hours. Three hours and she would be bonded for life to a man she'd never met. He'd be her mate and... The rest she couldn't even think about at the moment. She knew what mating involved. Sex wasn't a secretive topic within the pack yet she'd always thought it would be with someone she knew and cared about.

Suddenly she realised that someone was speaking to her. Looking up, she saw Kane had moved forward and was standing beside her father. "I'm pleased to meet you, Elise." His voice was deep and low, his eyes steady on hers.

Licking her lips, she managed to croak out a hello. Kane appeared even larger up close and she wished she had more inches to her height. At five foot, six inches, she was an average size but next to the new Alpha, she felt positively petite. Her father nudged her with his elbow and she realised that Kane had extended his hand towards her. Tentatively, she reached out and took it. The warmth of his skin immediately enveloped her and shot up her arm. Startled, she craned her neck to look up at his face and noted a faint smile pass over his mouth.

"I think we will suit each other." He nodded to her father and then gave her hand a squeeze. "I'll see you later, at the ceremony." Kane looked her up and down again before taking his leave and heading over to where the councils were meeting.

"Elise, I must go. There's other business to attend to today before the ceremony." Her father kissed her on the forehead and then gave her a gentle push, effectively dismissing her. "Go and find Sarah. She's been instructed to help you get ready." Sarah was Jake's wife and in some ways like a surrogate mother to her. Hunters had killed Elise's own mother years ago and her father had never taken another mate.

She briefly considered running away and going into hiding but knew that wasn't possible. There was nowhere to hide that she couldn't be found, short of taking a car and driving off, but then what? She had no money to speak of, nowhere to go...

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Elise tried to tell Sarah of her reservations but was shushed. It was for the good of the pack. Being mated to an Alpha would give her status. He would take good care of her... The well-meant words swirled around her.

She wanted to find Bryan, to cry on his shoulder and feel his arms around her, offering comfort one last time, but that too was denied her. It wouldn't be proper. There was no time... Were these actual reasons or just excuses? Either way, the result was the same. She found herself seated at a table beside a man she didn't know.

As she looked around, her heart thudding heavily in her chest, she noted that the hall had been decorated with fall mums and the best china set out. Linen cloths adorned the tables and various dishes of meat and vegetables, rolls and salads appeared. It always amazed Elise how Sarah could pull a meal together for a small army on a moment's notice. The food was no doubt delicious but she couldn't bear to eat. Well wishes from her pack members were given followed by speeches from the Elders and then the bonding ceremony began. Kane escorted her to the front of the room and words were spoken which she didn't even hear, let alone comprehend. Worst of all was the agonised looks exchanged with Bryan across the room as the final words were spoken and her wrist was bound with Kane's by a ceremonial leather rope.

Tied together, Kane led her from the hall to one of the guest cabins that were located not far from the main central house where the Alpha resided. He hadn't spoken directly to her since their initial meeting and she cast sidelong glances up at him as they walked across the moonlit lawn. Should she say something to break the silence? Her thoughts raced for an appropriate comment but none came to mind. Banal talk about the weather seemed ridiculous under the current circumstances and she was too nervous to really come up with anything else.

It was not in the nature of an Alpha to be unkind to a member of the pack unless they flaunted his authority, but Elise knew that the drive to mate was strong and she hoped Kane would be considerate of her. She knew the first mating could be painful and given his size, she had little hope that he would be only mildly endowed. If it was Bryan who was to mate her, it would be different. She had feelings for him. The thought of being with Bryan excited her, creating a warmth low in her belly while the idea of being with Kane only made her stomach muscles clench.

The cabin loomed in front of them. It was situated just at the edge of the forest, with trees around it giving the impression of seclusion. Made of logs, it had a weathered look from years of exposure to the elements but was still well maintained with a solid stone chimney, shuttered windows, and a small porch. Kane pushed the door open and gestured for her to enter, following close behind since their wrists were still tied. He shut the door and flicked on the lights, illuminating the room that featured a small kitchenette, eating area and a sofa in front of a fireplace. There was a door to the left that led to a bedroom and a small bath.

"Well." Kane spoke causing Elise to jump. "First order of business would be to remove this, wouldn't you say?" He held up their joined wrists and she nodded in agreement. Pulling a jackknife from his pocket, he cut the rope, letting it fall to the ground. Immediately, Elise pulled her arm away and rubbed her wrist. It wasn't really sore—the tie hadn't been tight—but the leather had still chafed and the enforced proximity had been...uncomfortable.

She noted that Kane was also rubbing his wrist. "We have a similar reaction to being imprisoned, I see." He quipped watching her movements.

"Yes." She wasn't sure what else to say and the silence stretched between them.

Kane rubbed his neck and stared around the room. Elise wondered if he found the situation as unnerving as she did. Had he really wanted to be her mate, or was he too turning his back on someone he loved for the good of his pack? Before she had time to consider the idea, he addressed her again. "It's getting late. Would you like to use the bathroom first?"

"All right." She opened the bedroom door and walked to the bathroom, feeling his gaze boring into her back. As she passed through the room, she noted that someone had made up the bed and her nightgown was lying near the foot. Snagging it in her hand, she entered the bathroom and closed the door, giving a sigh of relief. For a few minutes at least she would have some privacy and be free of Kane's presence. It wasn't that he was displeasing to look upon—in fact, in other circumstances, she would have admired his physique. His manner towards her had been polite, if a bit distant, so there was nothing she could complain about in that regard. The problem was that Kane wasn't Bryan. He was an unknown male; an unknown male she would soon be intimately involved with.

Her stomach clenched again and once more she thought of escaping, but where? She couldn't survive without a pack. Wolves were social animals. To be an outcast was an unthinkable fate. Besides, she'd have nowhere to live, no means of support and then there was always the fear of detection. It hadn't happened in years but that wasn't to say that if a werewolf became careless, someone would put the clues together. Caution had been drilled into her head since the moment of birth and all had a fear of being hunted down... No, she couldn't leave.

Elise stared at her reflection in the mirror. Deep green eyes stood out in her pale face and her dark brown hair, pulled back in a high pony tail, did nothing to hide the tense muscles of her jaw. As a matter of fact, her whole person was tense. Possibly a hot shower would help. Turning on the taps, she adjusted the spray, then stripped before stepping into the stall and letting the pounding water beat onto her body. She closed her eyes as the steam rose around her and forced herself to relax, letting her mind drift back to the afternoon when she and Bryan had been running together.

A smile drifted across her face. It had been so much fun, running like the wind; feeling her muscles stretched to the limit as she sought to outrun her companion. Bryan had tackled her to the ground and they'd rolled about, nipping at each other then bounding away, only to jump and tumble again. She'd nuzzled him and he'd licked her face, then they'd run back to the pack house, transforming into human form just inside the edge of the woods. Her hair had still had grass stuck in it and Bryan had picked it out before resting his hands on her shoulder and hinting at speaking to her father...

Elise imagined she could feel Bryan touching her even now and sighed contentedly before realising that it wasn't her imagination. Hands were touching her! With a squeal, she pulled away only to have strong fingers tighten their grip and pull her back.

Kane's voice rumbled in her ear. "It is just me. I decided to join you." His large hands massaged her shoulders then ran up and down her arms. "You're a slight little thing, aren't you?"

"I...yes." Her muscles tensed again, all the relaxing benefits of the hot water disappearing.

"Elise, I know this is...awkward... but try and relax and I will make it as easy on you as possible."

She nodded obediently, but inwardly thought he had to be kidding. Relax? He was about to invade her body with his, tearing the walls of her virginity and spilling his seed inside her... A bubble of hysterical laughter threatened to escape her throat.

Standing frozen under the pounding water, Elise felt his lips trail down her neck while his hands encircled her waist before moving up to cup her breasts. She gasped at the feel of his rough palms caressing her. He tweaked her nipples then lowered his mouth to kiss her ear, his hot breath tickling the sensitive skin..

"Mmm, your skin is so soft..." Kane rumbled his approval before spinning her around and capturing her mouth with his. Expertly, his lips teased hers and before she realised what she was doing, Elise opened her mouth, and his tongue slipped inside, gently stroking hers. Skilfully, his lips teased and caressed, stoking a fire within her. Involuntarily, she found herself responding, gripping his biceps as his hands ran up and down her back, drawing her closer until they were touching from chest to knee.

Elise could feel his hot erection pressing against her stomach and a strange quiver of excitement shot through her. This was what her friends had talked about... Even as the thought passed through her mind, she felt herself being picked up and carried into the bedroom.

Seeming not to care that they were both wet, Kane set her on the bed and then dropped down beside her. He kissed and caressed her, nipping and stroking, stimulating nerve endings until her entire body hummed with awareness. Heat was building inside of her and she squirmed restlessly. Kane was licking her belly and massaging her hips, then shockingly, he grabbed her thighs and pulled her legs apart, burying his face in her curls. Inhaling deeply, he licked at her nether lips. Elise tried to pull away but his grip tightened.

"I can smell your arousal; taste it... It calls to me." Kane looked up at her, his eyes dilated, his breathing uneven. He slid up and kissed her hot and hard. "You are my mate." He muttered against her lips before move to her neck and running his teeth lightly over her skin, biting down gently but not actually breaking the surface. Trailing his lips up her neck and back to her mouth, he sucked on her lower lip before kissing her again.

She started to melt into the kiss but then felt him push a finger inside of her and stiffened. It felt...strange. "Relax, this will make it easier." He whispered against her mouth. The finger probed her body and she felt an interesting sensation tingle down low. Of their own volition, her hips jerked against his hand and he worked another finger inside. Again she stiffened – it was uncomfortable and tight but soon the movement of his hand created more strange feelings within her and she felt herself becoming moist and relaxed.

Kane's fingers began to slide easily in and out of her and Elise closed her eyes, concentrating on the feelings growing within. There was tension but it felt good, exciting... Her breathing became shallow and she felt herself striving to reach some unknown place. When he stopped, she whimpered her displeasure. Suddenly, his fingers were gone. Her eyes flew open to see him rise above her and position his manhood at her entrance. For a moment he paused and looked her in the eye before thrusting himself into her.

She gasped. It hurt. He was too big. "No!" Struggling, she tried to escape but was pinned between his arms. He pulled out and pushed into her again twice more, each time entering more deeply until he was fully sheathed.

Tears trickled from her eyes and he bent forward, licking at them. "It will be fine. The first time can be difficult." He reassured. "You're slight compared to me but in a moment it will be better. Tell me when the pain subsides."

Some part of her brain noted that Kane trembled as he held himself still within her, but she was too consumed with what she herself was feeling to wonder why. After a few moments, the burning dissipated and she swallowed hard before nodding. "I'm all right now." Slowly, he began to move within her and soon the pleasurable sensations returned. They seemed to grow from within her, like a bubble slowly expanding... As Kane moved his shaft within her, it stroked her female parts. Her breathing became shallow. She needed more...more of something, though exactly what, she wasn't sure. Her fingers dug into his back and he seemed to understand.

Kane plunged into her faster, harder, deeper... Suddenly the bubble burst and she lost control, her limbs quivering as she found her release. Vaguely, she was aware of Kane grunting in pleasure before collapsing on top of her, his chest heaving.

After a moment, he pulled out of her and rolled over. The room was silent except for the sound of their breathing. As the pleasurable feelings faded, Elise's rational mind took over. It was not Bryan who had just brought her to her first orgasm. It was Kane—a virtual stranger. Feelings of shame and regret washed over her. How could she have enjoyed being with him? It all seemed so wrong but there was no going back. She was mated to him for life.

Her thoughts had brought her full circle and now she was pressed against Kane's chest, his arm around her waist. She felt trapped, both by his limb and the fact that her life was now bound to his. The future loomed ahead. What would it be like to spend the rest of her life with this man? To share his bed? Bear his young? To grow old beside him? Did he like to run in the forest or would he be too busy with his duties as Alpha to spend time with her? And who were the members of his pack? She'd have to leave her friends and family behind. Her new position as his mate would guarantee her respect, but would anyone be her friend or was she destined for a lonely existence?

Fears and doubts tumbled through her mind as she fell into a restless sleep.

In the morning, she awoke to find herself alone in bed. She stretched and winced, her body stiff from her activities the previous night. Twice Kane had awakened her. Each mating had brought her pleasure but her heart still felt heavy. There was no love between them, just sex. If it had been Bryan, they would have made a blood bond, biting each other's necks to mark the fact that they belonged together; forging a mental connection that would grow throughout their lifetime. Kane had made no move to do this and while Elise was relieved to not bear his mark, she was also unaccountably put-out by the fact. She would have liked the opportunity to refuse and earn a small victory but somehow, in her mind, it would have allowed her to prove that she was still loyal to Bryan.

There was no sign of Kane and she listened carefully, wondering if he was in the next room. All was silent. Well, at least she didn't have to face him right away though in some ways, getting that first awkward greeting over with might have been nice. Rolling out of bed, she made her way across to the bathroom, her feet silent on the soft carpeting.

The previous night, she'd been too keyed-up to take in her surroundings but now she looked around with interest. Elise seldom visited the cabins but knew her father had recently had them redecorated. The decor was simple; natural wood and colonial furnishings. Splashes of colour were found in the draperies and cushions and Elise reflected it was pleasantly welcoming. The bathroom was small but contained all the needed amenities and she made use of the shower, washing away the remnants of their nocturnal activities. She stayed in the bathroom as long as possible, delaying the moment when she would have to go find Kane. Finally, the water began to run cold and she reluctantly stepped out, drying herself off and donning the pants and T-shirt she had brought in with her.

Taking a deep breath, she exited her temporary haven, only to pause mid-stride. The bedding had been changed in her brief absence; the Council having been quick to gather the evidence that the union was complete. Embarrassment heated her face, as she imagined Kane stripping the bed and then handing over the stained sheets. She twisted her fingers together, wondering how she would ever be able to face any of the others. It really was a ridiculous custom to cling to in this day and age.

That she'd been a virgin wouldn't be a surprise to anyone in her pack. Her father was very traditional and had guarded her closely. While her friends had been off on dates, it had been well-known that she only went out in groups. Bryan had been the only male she was ever allowed to run with. Even he admitted that her father had given him stern warnings that there had better be no inappropriate behaviour if he valued his life. At the time, Elise had thought her father was just over protective, but now she was coming to realise that she had just been an object, a pawn to be used in political manoeuvring.

At that moment, the bedroom door opened and Kane appeared. "Elise. I heard you in the shower when I came in, so I made some breakfast for us." Briefly she made eye contact with him and he must have noted her flushed countenance for his eyes darted to the fresh sheets on the bed and then back to her. "Yes, the Council has been here to check on our union." He spoke the fact blandly as if it was of no more importance than the weather and Elise forced her feelings down, trying to match his nonchalant attitude.

He extended his arm, ushering her into the kitchenette. The table was set. Bacon and eggs, juice and toast were waiting. "I wasn't sure what you liked to eat first thing, but this is what I can cook. I hope it's suitable."

Elise looked at him in surprise. Her father had never set foot in the kitchen, always too busy with his work as Alpha. "You... You cooked this?"

"Yes. I am capable of fending for myself, you know." He chuckled at her expression and helped her into a chair. "Also, I can't have my mate undernourished. We used up a lot of energy last night." This final remark was accompanied by a kiss on her cheek and a hand running casually over her breast to her waist. Elise momentarily froze, but Kane sat down opposite her as if nothing had happened and began serving. "We'll need to take a few days to get used to each other—acquainted with various likes and dislikes. Is there anything you aren't fond of eating?" He paused in the middle of spooning up some egg and looked at her enquiringly.

"Um...not really."

"Good. I'll eat almost anything myself. Do you like to read? Watch movies?" The meal progressed with Kane asking her questions and Elise supplying answers. When she didn't question him back, he would fill in his own preferences. Elise had to admire him for the effort he was making. He was being friendly and polite, showing an interest in her... Apparently he was committed to making their union work.

After awhile, she relaxed a bit and found herself expanding on her answers. Kane smiled over at her, obviously pleased that she too was making an effort.

"Our territories adjoin to the east, and with our packs under an alliance, we technically have miles and miles of forest to roam in now," he explained, leaning back and sipping his coffee. "Personally, I love a good run over rugged terrain. How about you? When I first saw you, it was apparent that you'd just come in from exercising."

"Yes, I'd been out with...a friend." The smile that had been on her face during their meal, faded as she recalled her last run—the last time she would ever be with Bryan.

"And this...friend. Would he be the young male who was looking daggers at me yesterday? Tall with sandy hair and about twenty years of age?"

Elise hesitated, but knew Kane could find out from anyone in her pack. Her friendship with Bryan had been no secret. "Yes. That was Bryan. He had hoped to speak to my father about being my...mate." She looked away, her eyes misting a bit as she thought of him.

"And you?" Kane prodded softly. "How did you feel about that?"

Staring at her hands, Elise whispered her answer. "I...I was hoping for the same thing."

Kane was silent for a moment, and then answered slowly. "I see...but I'm not surprised. You are a beautiful female and it would be strange if no one in your pack had wanted to mate you." He sighed heavily. "You know, Elise, sometimes our lives have moments of great disappointment. It's difficult at the time, but we have to move beyond." He reached across the table and put a finger under her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Our being mated was of great importance to the well-being of both our packs. It's our duty to them, to make this work, agreed?"

His amber eyes bore into hers, the authority of his position evident and after a moment she nodded in agreement. He was right. Duty to her pack, and duty to his, necessitated making this union work. He stood and extended his hand to her. Hesitantly she reached out, placing hers in his. Warmth enveloped her hand and slowly worked its way up her arm. Smiling encouragingly, he pulled her to her feet.