Magic is found in the heart…
For Olivia Dawson, there’s nothing magic about the Christmas Season. The holidays are only a convenient excuse to return home to her wolver pack to lick her wounds before she moves on. She won’t have to admit the truth. She won’t have to ask for the forgiveness she doesn’t deserve. She’s made so many mistakes, but the worst was leaving the wolver who shared her heart. That’s a mistake that can’t be fixed. Love lost can never be reclaimed.
As far as Brad Seaward is concerned, Livvy Dawson can’t move on soon enough. It doesn’t matter if his wolf comes alive at the sight of her. Once burned, twice shy is Brad’s motto and that hot little wolver burned his dreams to ash. Sure, he always knew it would end that way, but knowing didn’t take away the pain. So why take a second chance when the outcome will be the same?
But this is Gilead, a place with a magic all its own, where hearts are warm, secrets are hard to keep, and pack comes first. There’s shifter magic in the air as the Alpha’s Mate enlists the help of those around her to bring these two lovers back together – with a bonus for the pack.
Hat firmly pulled down over her ears and collar turned up, Olivia Jean Dawson battled her way along the sidewalk. The front of her coat was plastered against her body. The back billowed out behind her like a sail that slightly altered her course with each new gust of the cold December wind. The city street, lined with its rows of multi-storied buildings, offered no shelter from the wintry blast. On the contrary, it acted as a tunnel for it, concentrating its force. She shivered against each new assault.
She was wolver, part human and part wolf, and the winter weather shouldn’t have affected her as sharply as it did. In her present state of mind, it only served as another reminder of how much she’d changed, and not for the better. The grey skies and slushy mix of rain and snow were only a reflection of the misery she felt inside.
A torn piece of newspaper flew up from the gutter and plastered itself against her chest like a scarlet letter. She tore it away and almost tossed it back into the swirling eddy of other trashy bits. Instead, she crumpled it into a ball, and stuffed it into her pocket. The newspaper scrap reminded her of Gilead, as everything seemed to do lately. It was another symbol of her failure and stupidity.
“Keep those lousy grades a secret from your mamas. My boys’ll eat the evidence for ya,” Miz Ezzy would cackle at the pups on their way home from the school bus stop. Like many of the homeless who walked the city streets, Miz Ezzy wore layers of dirty, mismatched clothes, the number of layers dependent on the weather. Her hair was a mass of tangles and she stank of unwashed body and rotting vegetation. Unlike the city’s homeless, Miz Ezzy never went hungry or without a warm bed. Like Olivia, Miz Ezzy was from Gilead, the tiny wolver community tucked away in a hidden corner of the country. She was pack, and pack took care of their own.
Everyone saved their scraps for Miz Ezzie’s boys and scrap collection was often assigned, mostly to cubs, as punishment for minor infractions. Olivia had suffered the humiliation a time or two herself.
The ‘boys’ were worms, boxes and boxes of them, that shared the shack Miz Ezzy lived in and the numerous outbuildings she’d built from anything the worms wouldn’t eat. Their pack’s Mate, Jazz, had turned the old woman’s eccentricity into a growing business, Gilead Castings, that now employed two dozen pack members.
On numerous occasions, Olivia had told the story and tried to explain to her new city friends how wonderful that was. Two dozen jobs! Those that didn’t wrinkle their noses in disgust, laughed. They thought it quaint, and not in a charming way, but with the implication that nothing more could be expected of the poor, the unfortunate, the uneducated, the unenlightened, or the flat-out ignorant. No matter the story, the reaction was always the same, only the descriptive names varied. Their derision was inevitably followed by their praise for Olivia’s good fortune in escaping such backward beginnings.
At first, their comments hurt. Gilead was more than her home town. It was her pack. They were people she loved. She still did, but as time passed, she began to see Gilead through the eyes of her new and more fortunate wolver connections. She began to laugh with them, and with each visit home, she saw more and more evidence of a pack mired in the past with little ambition to change it.
They refused to listen to reason. They were happy for her new clothes, new apartment, and new car only because these things made her happy, but they weren’t impressed by them.
“I have everything I need right here in Gilead,” her mother argued every time Olivia brought up the subject.
“What do you have?” Olivia would ask and then answer with her growing list. “A house that’s too small, a car that’s too old, and furniture that a thrift store would probably refuse. You’re forty-seven years old, Mama, and still wearing your sister’s hand-me-downs.”
In her typical fashion, Mama argued back. “The house will be empty all too soon, the car still runs, and with the dirt Daddy and your brothers drag in, I’d be fussing over the new furniture instead of fussing over them. And,” she added with a grin, “It makes your Aunt Donna feel good to give, and I thank God she has good taste. Ain’t that what you’re always calling a win-win situation?”
“But there’s so much more out there, Mama.”
“More maybe, but not better.”
There was no explaining how luxurious her first three room apartment felt after sharing five rooms with a family of seven.
She climbed the stone stairs to the larger apartment she lived in now. Letting herself in the main entrance, she smiled at the camera’s red light in the corner in case anyone was watching, and checked her mailbox one last time. Tomorrow, she would tear her name from its place by the button that allowed her to speak to visitors before she buzzed them in. There hadn’t been a visitor in months.
“Sounds lonely,” her younger sister commented on Olivia’s last visit and just after she’d moved into the apartment that was almost as large as her parent’s house.
Lucy said it as she squeezed past a kitchen table where Olivia and her mother sat blocking the route to the refrigerator. There was barely room to turn around in the tiny and overcrowded space. Lucy had just come from banging on the only bathroom’s door and shouting at Justice to hurry up.
“I have a bathroom all to myself,” Olivia countered, thinking that would be enough to impress the budding teen.
“So will I,” Lucy replied, “once Justice gets out. I don’t know what he does in there, Mama, but it’s probably gross and unhealthy. He’s been in there for over an hour.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Justice corrected from the doorway. He rubbed a towel against his wet head, splattering water over the kitchen floor and counters in the process. “You’re the one who takes hours, and I’ve got news for you, sis, it’s not enough. You’re still ugly.”
“Huh.” Lucy sniffed. “You’re the only one that thinks so. Rudy Carmichael thinks I’m cute.”
Her oldest brother, Matt, entered the fray. No longer the scrawny teenager he’d been when Olivia left home, his big body seemed to fill the room and dwarf everyone else in it. “You stay away from Rudy Carmichael. He’s just looking to get laid on the next full moon.”
“Matthew!” her mother cried on top of Lucy’s protest.
He grabbed Lucy’s glass of milk and downed it in three massive gulps. Another protest followed the first. The elder brother only laughed and tugged his sister’s ponytail. He inched around the table and kissed the top of his mother’s head.
“Gotta run. We finally got that boom fixed and I’m taking the wrecker out tonight. Brad says he…”
As if someone had slammed the lid on the box that held the doll house kitchen, the room fell silent. The only thing that moved was the wolf that lived inside Olivia. The animal was suddenly alert to the sound of the name. It shivered with excitement.
Neither her wolf nor her family could accept her breakup with Brad. The animal chose to pretend the breakup never happened, while the family treated it like a dirty secret best left unmentioned.
“It’s okay. You can say his name, you know,” she said with false cheerfulness. “I have a new life and better prospects. Terrence is everything I want.”
With a soft whine, her wolf had settled back. There was no point in protest. Never let your wolf rule your human was Primal Law. In any argument with the inner wolf, reason dominated instinct. The animal didn’t understand reason as her human did, but it understood the laws that had governed wolvers’ existence since time began. As long as she walked on two legs, her human was in charge.
The looks her family had given her ranged from pity to disgust. Terrence was an outsider to the pack, ‘from off’, which in the Dawson household translated as ‘not good’. It didn’t seem to matter that almost half their members were from off before they mated and joined the pack.
That they were right about Terrence only made Olivia’s failure worse.
That conversation took place almost a year ago, when everything she’d hoped for was spread out before her like a golden road to Dreams Come True. Terrence Harkness was that dream, and Olivia thought he was perfect.
She’d met him quite by accident at a local watering hole where she and her recently graduated friends had gone to celebrate another teaching position filled. Of the six, Olivia was the only one who’d yet to find a placement. Though she’d cheered and toasted her friend’s good fortune, she was beginning to worry that she’d have no choice but to return to Gilead where everyone would be pushing her to reunite with Brad. She would do it, too, if he was willing. Her lingering feelings for him would make it all too easy to succumb, and in the end the hurt would be worse. She couldn’t stand the thought of growing to hate him because their mating kept her from her dreams. Time and distance was the only cure for the two of them.
The night she met Terrence, her wolf was the first to recognize the presence of another wolver. After being sad and silent for so long, it suddenly erupted in happy, purring sounds that none of her human friends could hear or would understand. Its sudden interest made Olivia turn, and there he was, sitting at the bar and eyeing her with interest. He raised his glass to her, drank it down, and then came to her with his hand held out. He didn’t ask. He didn’t need to. Hair trimmed, nails buffed, and skin as smooth as the silk of his tie, He was the handsomest wolver she’d ever seen. They danced the night away.
It was like a romantic fairytale. They spent more and more time together. He took her to places she only dreamed of; expensive restaurants, the theater, and catered parties where no one ever heard of potluck, and the handcrafted beer was kept in special refrigerators rather than old tin tubs filled with water and ice.
Olivia’s head was so filled with dreams she never noticed when her wolf’s purr became less frequent and gradually disappeared.
Within two weeks, Olivia was able to quit her part-time job in a department store for fulltime employment in the Harkness family firm.
When she spoke of renewing her search for a teaching position, Terrence laughed at her, gently to be sure, but a laugh just the same. “Why on earth would you want to teach?”
She tried to explain how rewarding it was to watch a youngster master their letters and see the sense of them in words, but her own words were insufficient to convey how much that meant. She knew how foolish she sounded when she spoke of opening the doors to the world for her students, particularly if there were wolvers among them.
Because of the secret lives they led, wolvers often felt isolated in the classroom. The idiosyncrasies of their behavior were frequently misconstrued as waywardness and sometimes seen as bullying as they vied for their place in the schoolyard hierarchy.
Her student teaching had shown her it wasn’t all a bed of roses. There would be days when she had to search for those blossoms, but when she found them, the discovery always brought her a sense of contributing to something greater than herself. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was a pup,” she’d ended when other words failed.
Terrence had rolled his eyes. “All little girls want to be a teacher. The more intelligent among them find more lucrative means to seek their rewards.”
She’d allowed herself to be swayed. Like everything else connected to her old life, the dream of teaching began to fade. She wanted money and the things it could buy.
It wasn’t ideal. Sitting cooped up in a windowless room of cubicles all day chafed against her wolf’s need for freedom and fresh air, but the paycheck made up for the confinement. Who knew that keeping track of inventory, shipping and receiving, and billing, paid so much more than teaching?
It didn’t, but she didn’t know that then any more than she knew her apartment’s rent was twice as much as she paid. She was too enthralled with Terrence and the novelty of her new life to pay attention.
He taught her how to present herself in this new and exciting world. He guided her in changing her speech, to be rid of the backwoods twang that he found adorable but others would not. He helped her choose new styles of clothing so she wouldn’t feel out of place among his friends. She liked those friends, and with Terrence’s smiling approval, she adopted their manners. They were nice to her.
The women recommended hair stylists and nail salons. The men smiled indulgently at her occasional faux pas and offered sympathetic hints with their eyes to indicate which fork to use. She thought she was forming bonds with some of them. Once she was a full member of Terrence’s pack, those bonds would become even stronger. Her life revolved around Terrence who regularly hinted at their future together.
Over the next two years, her trips home became less frequent. Her excuse was that it was harder to arrange time off when you were working nine-to-five, and weekends were filled with Terrence. She continued to make what Terrence referred to as duty calls to her mother once a week. Her end of the conversation was filled with her new social life, the clothes she bought to go with it, and other new and larger purchases. Her mother’s end was filled with neighborhood gossip. Olivia’s goodbyes always came with a twinge of homesickness that she attributed to nostalgia. Gilead was the past. She was looking toward the future.
Her only real regret came from breaking off her relationship with Brad Seaward. For weeks, she cried and listened to her wolf snarl and snap, angry with her for what she’d done. Brad was her first love and first lover and like all young lovers, they’d made plans for the future, but those plans and dreams were no longer shared. It was the right thing to do, but she would never forget the anguish she felt when she told him it was over and he turned and walked away.
After meeting Terrence, the pain became a dull ache which she assumed would fade away over time. It never did, but she learned to live with it just as she learned to live with the never quite satisfied feeling she had each time she slept with Terrence. Neither her wolf nor her body ever responded to him the way it had to Brad. This, too, she attributed to a wistfulness for the youth she left behind. This, too, she believed would pass.
Her mother’s hints about meeting Terrence became more pronounced. Her brothers and sister added their voices to the din. Finally, her normally easygoing father put his foot down and demanded to meet the young wolver who was, in his words, stealing his little girl away. The Mate was anxious to meet him, too, and threatened an order from the Alpha if that was what it took.
Knowing what Terrence would think, Olivia was hesitant to invite him home to Gilead, but the choice was no longer hers. She prepared him as best she could to meet her family.
“Always up for a slumming adventure,” he said, though claimed he was only teasing when he saw the comment hurt her.
Soon after that meeting with her family, she met his.
Neither meeting went well.
Olivia never mentioned the split in her weekly calls. She pretended that everything was fine until reality reared its ugly head and she had to wake up to the truth. The dream was dead and she was a failure.
Letting herself into the apartment that had never become the home she’d envisioned, Olivia surveyed the boxes stacked along the wall. They were packed with the things she’d accumulated since moving to the city, and only the things she’d paid for from her earnings. Pride insisted she return everything Terrence had given her and what he refused to accept, she’d given away. She couldn’t afford to stay here or anywhere else in the city.
Olivia Jean Dawson was going home to Gilead with her tail tucked between her legs. Like Miz Ezzy, Olivia was pack. They couldn’t turn her away.
But she wasn’t going to stay. She’d made her bed, and now she had to lie in it, no matter how hard and lumpy it was. Her dream may have died, but she still had her pride.