"One of these days, you're going to beat me little wolf." Phalen grinned as he moved a chess piece. "Unfortunately for you, that day is not today. Checkmate." His tie loosened, white shirt sleeves rolled up, and a grey suit jacket flung over the back of his leather wing-back chair.
My face twisted into a pout. I really thought I was getting somewhere.
"Don't take it too hard, you are showing improvements. Honestly, had I not seen your strategy, you would have had me in three moves."
Chess had become our thing, something we did every night before we each headed for bed. Well, rather, I headed for bed and the king tried to head for bed. Far too many times, duty called him away once again.
I felt bad for him. He carried a lot of responsibility and got very little sleep.
"Can I ask you something personal, Your Majesty?" I let the words linger.
"Sure. And for the millionth time, please just call me Phalen when we are in private quarters."
My fingers pulled at the hem of my dress. It was rude to be so curious, I knew that. However, I didn't want to ask questions behind his back either. "Why don't you have a mate?"
Hazel eyes snapped up to me as he leaned back and let out the air from his chest. "I did have a mate. Elora. She was beautiful and kind." He said with a small smile on his lips. "I had never marked her. Not because I didn't want to. My wolf practically begged me to every chance he had. But she recognized the danger of it. If we sealed our bond so intimately, she could be targeted and killed as a way to kill me. And she would never allow for her life to threaten mine."
"What happened?" The sound was barely above a whisper.
He looked down and started to collect the chess pieces. "She died. Despite the accelerated healing of wolves, our kind can still get cancer. Cancer is the rapid growth of abnormal cells in the body, however, they are still seen as natural to the body, something our healing abilities do not fight against. In fact, it helps those rogue cells all the more. Early detection is the only possible way to remove it. If not, the cancer is far too damaging. I lost her in two weeks."
"It wasn't your fault." He said dismissively.
I shook my head. "No, but I reminded you of your pain. I'm sorry for that."
He stopped. "So many people say sorry, so few understand why. It's nothing more than an instinctive toss of phrase. But I think you're the first person to truly mean it." His knuckles grazed my cheek. "It's getting late. Why don't you head to bed?"
Without question, I got up from the chair and slowly made my way to my room.
It had been two months since I was found, a little over a month since I moved into the royal suites. I had argued against it, but the king had insisted. He said that less people had access to his personal suites where he and Emerson lived. It would be more comfortable for me to have my own room where I had more control over my interactions with others. And he was right.
I was always free to leave if I wanted to. But I didn't have to force myself to deal with so many strangers. I was beyond appreciative as I didn't really want to face people.
It also kept all of my essential locations close by while I slowly regained strength in my legs. Even with the accelerated healing of a werewolf, Xavier said it would take time. After not standing or walking during my four years of captivity, I had to start a whole process of building my nutritional foundations and then building muscle and relearning how to walk, which couldn't even start until my hip healed. That had taken several weeks on it's own.
But then I moved in here. I was grateful to have a room of my own with it's own bathroom, while the library and dining room were right across from me. What more could a recovering woman need?
With my leg braces and crutches, I worked my way from the fireplace where we sat and played our game, through the library and across the corridor to my room. I even tried to not flinch at the guards placed in the suite's hallways.
Emerson had leadership over the personal guards of the palace, so he rearranged them according to my comfort levels, two inside the suite complex and two outside the door of the isolated corner of the palace grounds, their rotations more limited so that I only had to get used to a set number of new males who were under orders to never initiate any kind of contact with me unless it was a matter of health or safety.
Then, once Phalen and Emerson realized that I was nervous around the maids as well, the number of maids was dropped down to only a small group. No one else was permitted in except Liz and her mate, Jax who I had met just before leaving the hospital.
It had taken me a long time before I spoke more than a few words again, my wolf and I drowning in our grief and processing what my uncle had written. All of those years, I thought he hated me. I carried the blame for everything on my shoulders. Well, even since hearing the letter, I carried blame. It wouldn't lift overnight. I was used to carrying that burden. However learning the truth helped to push me forward, to accept the king's suggestion of taking a year to heal and try to find a mate.
I wasn't sure it would be possible.
I feared men.
I feared mates.
I even feared most women. After all, it was their insults I had lived with as an omega. I avoided the warriors and the high ranking wolves of Midnight Meadows for years. However, I couldn't escape everyone. And after Lucien had thrown me out for being a weak whore who welcomed rogues between my thighs… the accusations never left the minds of the pack. That was all they saw me as from that day forward. Not that Lucien ever knew of their torments and abuse. I didn't think he cared enough for me to even think of telling him. After all, his words that started it all.
It was all a mess.
Over time though, my wolf had strengthened her trust in our new alpha, in King Phalen. His brother as well. They had shown themselves to be wolves of honor. Phalen granted us freedom from Donovan and his horrible alpha orders. He gave us a choice in our own life. And he protected us from our own fears. Emerson was always there to make sure no one touched me and remind me that Donovan was locked away.
My wolf and I found comfort in knowing they were just down the hall in another room when I woke screaming in the night. Phalen or Emerson would run in and rock me to sleep.
Liz had always been kind, I was hesitant with her, waiting for the judgments or insults that came from other females. But they never reared their head. Eventually, I started to think of her as a friend. I hadn't had a friend since my parents died. Though I wasn't sure how to have a girlfriend anymore. Liz was bubbly and liked to talk about pop culture that I wasn't familiar with, or fashion and makeup. She was a good woman and a friend even if we were from different backgrounds.
Jax didn't bother me much. I assumed that if Phalen and Emerson trusted him, then he wasn't a bad man. I just needed my space. And he seemed to understand. He gave me distance when he was in the suite and offered nothing more than a kind smile and a polite hello or goodbye.
My mind wandered as I got myself ready for bed. With my weakened arms and leg braces, it was easier for me wear dresses and nightgowns. Simple garments that I could change into while sitting down. Though panties were still a challenge from time to time. Damn it.
And of course, it just happened to be a night that nothing wanted to cooperate. I had managed to change into my nightgown, tossing my red knit t-shirt dress into the laundry hamper for the maids. I had even removed my leg braces and set them on the nightstand. But changing my panties, I just couldn't get my feet into the correct holes without losing my grip on them completely.
Before long, I found myself falling face first to the bedroom floor. Seconds later, Emerson ran into the room, sending my door crashing into the wall behind it. "Oh!" We both blushed as he looked away and I rolled over to a less awkward position that didn't have my naked backside facing him.
"Um, you need some help?" He asked as he chuckled awkwardly, staring at the wall.
I wiggled my way into my panties and pulled down my nightgown before I answered. I wish I could say it was the first time such a thing happened. But that would be a lie. "Sure, help getting back into bed would be nice." I was seriously tempted to not wear panties at all for the trouble they got me into.
He easily scooped me up and placed me into the center of the bed so that he could sit next to me. "How was your game with Phalen?"
"I lost. Again."
A deep rumble of his humor vibrated against my arm. "You're getting better, every day. Your gamesmanship and everything else."
It sounded like such a massive list of things that I had to improve on. I had no official education, I stopped attending school after my parents death. No one wanted me there, so I was left alone when I stopped going to class in my grief. Physically, I still looked sick. I was weak and couldn't take care of myself. I was reconnected to my wolf, but hadn't shifted in years. Warrior training was never something I was allowed to attend even if I could have gotten past my fears to do it. Omega's weren't granted such skill training. I had no land, no pack, no title, or money.
"Hey, why the frown Rose bud?" Emerson nudged me.
I chewed on my lower lip as I thought of how to explain my strange mood. "I asked Phalen about his mate."
"Oh. And what about it made you frown?" I could hear the note of caution in his voice.
"He loved her very much, didn't he?"
I let out a breath. "It just makes me wonder why I could never find that. I mean, the Mood Goddess paired me with Donovan. What's wrong with me that everything conspired to put him in my life?"
His arm wrapped around me and pulled me closer. I flinched, but it smoothed away quickly and I relaxed into comforting contact. "Nothing Rose. Nothing was ever wrong with you. I don't know why you were paired with that bastard, but I blame all of your hardships on him. Had he been more of a man and never joined Scyler in his twisted world, perhaps he would have been a better mate for you."
"But now I can't offer a man anything, Em. I'm too weak and dependent on everyone else. The only real skill I have is cooking, but it will be months before anyone will trust me in a kitchen alone because I can't walk right let alone lift a pan. I don't have an education. I'm too sickly to even count as cute, let alone gain a man's attention if I wanted it. And I don't. I can't even sleep through the night without the nightmares. How could I offer a man intimacy or a family, let alone anything else of worth?"
Emerson growled as he shifted to look at me more closely. "Don't ever think like that." His eyes glowed as his wolf came forward, I saw it and dropped my eyes to his collarbone in respect, not wanting to challenge such a powerful wolf. "If he is an honorable male, he would never push you for intimacy, your companionship and laughter would be enough. If he is a wolf true to our nature, he would want to provide for you and protect you. If he is a man worth your devotion, he would love you for the woman you are and see the beauty you try to hide back in these lonely suites."
How could his wolf see me like that?
I didn't deserve such faith or respect.
He coughed slightly to break up the tension, the intimacy. "I should let you sleep."
I nodded silently. Though once awkwardness was there, it reminded me of the question I had asked Phalen. Would it be the wrong time to ask Em the same thing? I was just trying to understand the people around me, but something about the moment before turned the perspective ever so slightly. But I was scared that I would chicken out if I waited. "What about your mate?" I whispered before I could stop myself.
Emerson stood at the door and turned around, his face emotionless. "That is a complicated story for another time." He started to turn to leave and then paused, looking over his shoulder. "Why are you suddenly so curious about everyone's mates?"
My shoulders lifted while I played with the sheet in my lap. "Earlier, when we started our chess game, the king said the Mating Ball was next month."
"Hoping to choose a mate?" He turned fully and leaned on the door frame.
"I don't know if I will even go. It's so many people. I don't want to keep either of you from finding your mates if I have another panic attack."
Slowly he pushed off from the wood of the door frame and walked back over and placed a chaste kiss on the top of my head. "I found my mate a couple of years ago. Like I said, it's complicated. Phalen already found his. Neither of us are really looking for a second chance. So, you won't interfere with anything. Now relax. Goodnight Rose."