The pack was just beside itself, driven in a mad tizzy with drama and turmoil, filling Claire's home with inexorable, intolerable noise. Even from upstairs in her bedroom, she couldn't escape the ruckus. Tucked away in a secret nook behind her closet, she sat curled up in a corner filled with fluffy pillows, lacey strips hanging across the walls, and soft shaggy carpeting laid across the floor. The orange glow of miniature bulbs strung from the ribbons did little to soothe Claire as they often did.

The distractions of the rogues and keeping the pack safe had spared Claire from her father's wrath for the time being, but she didn't want to sit in silence, not now. She wanted to be punished; she wanted her father to drill into her head the senses which should have kept her from going to that party in the first place. The rush of unruliness and independence only felt good then on the dance floor; the repercussions of her actions were catching up with her sensible conscience. Now that danger had resurfaced and she was brought back to earth, she had to decide if her little rebellious excursion was truly worth the mayhem and betrayal of her own intellect.

A nearly full sketchbook lied sprawled open beside her, filled with quick but detailed sketches of each rogue's face imprinted in her memory, ready to hand over to her father when needed. It was the least she could do after all the stupid stunts she'd pulled the past month. Why do I feel so guilty? It's not like I led the rogues into town and allowed them to attack my family. I only put myself in danger; so why do I feel so damn bad? A possible reason for her contrition walked in through the threshold of her bedroom door; the quiet footsteps bore weight down on the healthy floorboards opposite of the wall Claire hid behind.

He didn't need to speak or call out for direction; the footsteps came to Claire's closet, where the door slid open and peeking through the hanging clothes and linens, Luke's hazel eyes glimmered in the dim ochre light. Neither spoke as he helped himself into Claire's little sanctuary, kneeling down to sit against the opposite wall, facing her direction. Observing him silently, Claire could blatantly see he looked exhausted, although he didn't look at her directly; he stared vacantly at the wall in front of him. The fact he hadn't looked at her for several passing minutes made her want to crawl out of her skin.

"Please say something," she murmured. Finally, Luke glanced her way, a gesture which brought more relief to her troubled mind than she thought could be possible. His reaction toward her and Arron indulging in one another wasn't what Claire had expected in the least. She anticipated he would be furious, but not anywhere akin to desperate or crushed. The moment he pulled Arron off her, there was a split second she thought he was going to kill him right then and there. She was stunned when he allowed Arron to walk out of the house unscathed, but what shocked her even more was the trounced, sad shimmer of Luke's eyes as he pled with her, begging for an answer. Luke Grayson never begged for anything or with anyone. The silent expression in his eyes earlier tonight betrayed him, conveying different words than he had spoken aloud to her. Even now, sitting across from her, his solemn eyes appeared to scream, What's happening to you? What's happening to my Claire?

Claire had never thought it was even conceivable to emotionally hurt Luke; he'd always been so impenetrable and nonchalant toward whatever life threw at him. His undoing, however, was the crushing blow of rejection at staggering proportions. For the first time in what felt like ages, Claire yearned to unravel her arms from herself and wrap them around Luke, to beg him to forgive her for being so selfish and immature. For some unnamable reason, she couldn't move to execute the gesture.

Finally, he spoke. "Everyone's been accounted for; they're all in their homes, safe. Your dad is beside himself; he doesn't know what to do, especially since this is all a personal attack."

This caught Claire's full attention. "Personal? You mean someone has a vendetta against the pack?"

"Your dad seems to think so, yes. The packs that have been attacked up to this point have been some of our closest allies and friends. These rogues either have a vendetta against our pack as a whole, or your father specifically."

Such a possibility was difficult for Claire to grasp. She'd never heard of her father having enemies; the man may be traditional and firm in his ways, but he wasn't cruel or even confrontational. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think her father didn't piss someone off in some form. Just because she simply never heard or saw anyone so much as back-talk her father—besides herself—didn't mean he wasn't capable of making enemies.

There was something else, though; she could see it in the troubled, confused crease in Luke's brow. He seemed distant from all of this, distant from the rogue attack as a whole, and was focused on one thing specifically. She wanted to ask, but Claire could not bring the will to utter the words.

Luke made a small sound comparable to a chortle of nostalgic amusement and Claire's attention was distracted into watching him take in the atmosphere of the den. A tiny smirk pulled the corner of his lips up. "I remember when we were kids; Trixie, Chelsea, and you would have me and the other boys chase you around the house, then you girls would retreat up here and hide. When we finally found out you had this here, you had a strict 'No Boys Allowed' policy and hid behind that." Another snicker. "You never could finish what you started."

Claire bowed her head; out of shame or insult, she couldn't decide. Within a few moments, Luke's fond memory of past events from their childhood alleviated the tension in the room; in fact, she was surprised he even remembered the silly antics they participated in together all those years ago.

"What's that you're drawing?" Luke tilted his head toward Claire's open sketchbook.

"Oh, I was sketching down the faces of the rogues I saw, before my memory gets too blotchy." She went ahead and handed him the packet of paper, watching his tired eyes scan the art carefully.

"Definitely have to show these to your dad." Claire would have added her own remark, but she was too mentally drained to care. She did continue to eye Luke warily as he turned another page—a page Claire knew held no sketches of rogues—and Luke's brows went up. "I haven't seen your art in forever, it feels. This is a real good piece."

"Which one?" Claire asked indifferently.

"This sketch of Paris." As if he read her mind, Luke handed back the book respectfully. Claire became familiar with the drawing after not seeing it for a couple weeks.

"I want to go to France someday," she said in a hopeful daze, gazing at the sketch longingly to see the real Eiffel Tower, to smell the air and hear the buzzing life of the city.

"Paris would be a nice little reprieve, wouldn't it?" Luke amended, now gazing into Claire's eyes. "I suppose, as an artist, you can't help but be drawn to one of the most artistic cities in the world." Only managing a brief smile, Claire finally withdrew her eyes from Luke's, searching for something to look at for a substitute. More sterile moments passed, the wordlessness eating away at Claire's psyche.

"So, what happens now?" she finally asked.

"Tomorrow morning, we're going to go tracking for the rogues, see if they rendezvoused within the foothills. In the meantime, we'll just try to keep everyone safe while not obstructing our everyday lives. The Rite is still going on as scheduled."

Claire wasn't languid enough to not take this news with a thread of dissatisfaction. If the Rite had been postponed, it would have helped make life a little easier. But she knew better; if anything, times like this were only more cause for the Rite to be completed as soon as possible.

"Sorry if that disappoints you," Luke commented. Claire cursed herself for carelessly allowing her thoughts to show through her face. Unable to think of anything to counter him, she simply sat there, hugging herself tighter, the sudden thought of him claiming her at the Rite causing the room to bear down on her like a vise. "Don't be afraid, Claire."

Luke's modest solace caught Claire off guard. In his eyes she could see a strange glimmer of emotion. She needn't ask just what he was referring to; because, in spite of her pride, he was right. She was afraid.

"How else do you expect me to feel?" she uttered in a lost murmur. Stunned when Luke didn't take the opportunity to scoot in closer, Claire merely returned his intense gaze with a hopeless gawp. Sighing, he ran his hand through his short, disheveled hair, rubbing his eyes in the process. This wasn't a gesture of frustration or tetchiness; he was just plain exhausted. She was surprised he hadn't passed out at that point.

"I know the idea of being forced to give yourself to another simply for the sake of tradition is unfair and demeaning. But I don't want you to worry about it."

"Easier said than done," Claire mumbled ungratefully. It was so easy for him to give such ignorant advice!

"What I mean is," Luke continued calmly, his voice dropping to a velvet-warm tone, "Don't think that the Rite is going to be the last day of your life. Don't forget, there are three steps in claiming another as a mate. There is the emotional courtship, the bloodletting, and the physical courtship itself. I intend to go through these steps, but in an appropriate order." His movements went on barely noticed by Claire, for his eyes were already so intense it already felt as if he was inches from her face before he shifted. "I want you as my mate, Claire. There's no tip-toeing around it anymore. But I'm not going to claim you all in just the first night; I don't expect you to just hand yourself over to me without a qualm. I like to work and earn what I strive for, and you are no exception. I want you to want me to claim you as mine, and to want to claim me as yours, as well. I'm willing to wait however long that'll take, but I will have you because we're meant to share this life together. You may not see it yet, but in time, I know you will."

Claire felt numb from her neck down to her toes. She didn't know whether to take comfort or burden more stress from Luke's blunt preaching. How was she supposed to counter such words? Before she could answer this question for herself, she held her breath in mid-inhale when he was suddenly leaning into her personal space, so close he could kiss her—

His lips softly touched her forehead just above her hairline in a quick, intimate peck. "Try to get some rest." In seconds, he was gone, but long after he'd left, Claire was still unconsciously holding her breath. As tired and heavy as her eyes felt, she highly doubted she would be able to sleep now. So, she continued to stay awake until she heard the remaining members of the pack's parliament leave the house. James had a bone to pick with her, and Claire figured she might as well face the music with dignity; she left the safety of her bedroom and headed downstairs to take what would surely be the harshest criticism and discipline of her young life.

In the following days, Claire's mind was still heavily burdened with stress and sleep. Under house arrest by order of her father, there wasn't much she could do to occupy herself. When no ideas came to her for art, she went into her father's study to read up on books of their law and society. While waiting for "doomsday", as she used to call it, she might as well further educate herself in the duties of being Alpha.

When she wasn't doing this, she found herself passing the time through sleep.

James had barely been home; he, Luke, and Ajax were too occupied with their duties as alphas in keeping the pack in line, interrogating and investigating. From what Claire overheard one night, there was disturbing evidence leading to a possible mole in the pack. She refrained from eavesdropping from then on; as curious and determined she was to get into pack business, she didn't want to hear something that would shatter her faith and security in her own home.

The only reason she interrupted her own slumber this particular morning was to have a bite to eat; no sooner than she finished her last bite did she hastily return to the warm sanctuary of her bed, curling back into her favorite position and drifting off into slumber. Soon enough, familiar aches and dull pains forced her to surrender a few more hours of sleep. Her bones felt sore, her muscles tense and constricting within herself—another silent reminder the Full Moon was tomorrow; and with the Full Moon, came the Rite.

Moving downstairs, she found the house empty of any other presence besides herself. Samantha was undoubtedly at the Ol' Rust Inn, where the pack often held meetings. To have the house to herself after all the disarray from the other night was an immense relief.

Scooping coffee grounds into the brewer, she inhaled the strong aroma with satisfaction. She didn't drink coffee too often; she left it as a last resort when she was exceedingly sluggish, to give herself a jumpstart.

Expecting she'd be home alone for quite some time, hearing the door open suddenly made her flinch instinctively. She hadn't drunk enough coffee for the buzz to kick in; it was simply her instincts remaining on high alert after all the turmoil from last night. A breath of relief escaped her lungs when Luke came walking around the corner and into her view in the kitchen. That relief soon dissolved into apprehensiveness, even once he had smiled at her and helped himself to a cup of coffee.

"How is the wild goose chase going?" Claire couldn't stand the sterile silence; every little thing got under her skin too easily these days.

"Slow," Luke sighed, leaning up against the opposite counter, holding a coffee mug in one hand. This had been only the second time Claire had seen Luke since the night of the attack, and just as the previous instances, there were light bags under his eyes from days straight of little to no sleep and shattering mental stress. He did not look ready at all for the Rite tomorrow. But the sooner it came and went, the better for their pack's defenses.

"Why haven't you guys been able to just pick up a scent and track them?"

"Because they haven't left a distinguishable scent for us to track. We suspect they are using some concoction of odor-eliminating herbs, like lavender or peppermint, to hide their scent. Whoever these bastards are, they came prepared."

Sighing to express her frustration with the drama, Claire took another delicate sip of hot coffee. She couldn't help but ask the question she had lingering in her head, even if the answer was simple enough for her to figure out herself. "When you become Alpha tomorrow, what will you do differently than my dad to catch these rogues?"

Luke gazed at her thoughtfully before answering, in the way one would hesitate to predict a reaction. "Your dad, using the old-fashioned methods of offensive strategies, wants to send out hunting parties. I want to fortify our defenses at home and do nothing; let the rogues get bold enough to wander into our territory again and catch them off-guard."

Claire decided to test her own alpha sense. "Sounds like a plan, but wouldn't it be awful easy for the rogues to figure we'd do something like that? And what if they attack in an area that is weak? You've said so yourself, there's no way to distinguish a pattern; so you can't know where they are most likely to hit in order to catch them."

Luke, rather than expressing insult or distaste for her inquiries, only smiled. His tired hazel eyes appeared to shimmer with life for just the moment, even if that life-likeness was a bit cocky. "They would have, but there is one advantage we hold. The rogues wouldn't suspect we know this is a personal vendetta against your father; the only pattern they've given is that they attack one territory and then move on to the next. They don't expect us to think they will hit our territory again, especially since they've already taken a few human lives. With this, plus their use of scent-eliminating herbs, they'll think they have the advantage due to our ignorance. So, when we have them believing we've given up the search because they've slipped out of our territory, they won't hesitate to return when they think they have the upper hand. Then we've got them."

This plan of his seemed plausible and sensible. It made perfect sense on Claire's part. She only wondered how her father would feel, letting another take his place and authority as Alpha, and watching his plan be replaced with another. She couldn't help but share the thought with Luke. "I wonder how my dad will take to this plan."

Luke shifted, a new and strange twinge of his brow reflecting a melancholy emotion Claire noticed immediately. "I hope, despite what he's been raised to believe, he will think this is a good plan." He bowed his head, mistakenly gazing into his coffee when his line of sight was really the opaque tile of the kitchen floor. "Your father's approval means a lot to me," he confessed. "I hope I will be the Alpha he thinks I can be, even if I do things slightly different than he would have."

"My dad does see something in you, something he likes. Otherwise, he wouldn't have so much faith in you." Claire became evidently aware of Luke's intent gaze; without looking at him, she could feel the amused glint in his voice.

"It confuses you, doesn't it, how your dad is fond of me the way he is." Caught off-guard, Claire's discomfort toward Luke's true statement was too sudden for her to detain. "It's okay to admit it," Luke told her, inching closer to her now with each lazy step he took.

"Admit what?"

"Admit that you have no idea what good there is in me for your father to be so confident in my abilities as Alpha." Through her shunning attitude, Claire had made it clear this was her frame of mind. At least, it was then. The hazel hue of Luke's eyes hadn't iced over, but they were a smidgen cooler than the liquid easiness they had been earlier.

"I didn't know what good my father saw in you," Claire amended solemnly, grasping her coffee mug firmly. "But I guess all I had to do was just open my eyes a little. Because now I can see some of the things my father likes about you." Not wanting to sound too heartfelt, she added this last cynical humor, "Even if I didn't, it wouldn't make much difference, anyways. You're going to conquer as Alpha tomorrow night, so…" Her attempt to wane the somberness of their conversation backfired, and it wasn't only to do with the weak, scoffing snigger she placed at the end of her poor joke.

Luke was directly in front of her, keeping a good couple feet of distance between them; his eyes were fiercely determined now, fixated on her. Neither of them bothered to speak of the other obvious event that would transpire tomorrow night following Luke's ascension to Alpha Male.

After countless, intolerable minutes of silence, Claire tensed when he finally took those few steps and closed the distance between them. Refraining from the impulse to incline her head upward, she only followed Luke with her eyes until he was so close, she could feel his breath on her forehead. He pressed his lips against the soft skin below her hairline in a prolonged, daringly tender gesture.

"It'll be okay," was all he murmured to her before casually placing his empty mug by the sink and leaving the house.

© Jordane M. Arnold

A/N: Took me forever to finish this stinkin' chapter! I've been making adjustments and changes to this story all over the place, because it's evolved into something a lot more than what I originally intended. The damn characters and story grew on me.

I'm sure the next chapter will take me FOREVER, since I am horrible at writing action scenes…

The ice is finally breaking between Luke and Claire, but will it freeze back up again after the Rite, or will things finally warm up? ;)

Thanks a million to those who've been sticking with this story so far! :D

Chapter Playlist

Little By Little - Blue Foundation