Magic is found in the heart…
For Olivia Dawson, there’s nothing magic about the holidays. They’re only a convenient excuse to return home to her wolver pack where she can 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 was another shameful reminder of how much she’d changed. 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, crumpled it into a ball, and almost stuffed it into her pocket, a habit she’d learned as a pup. Tossing it back into the swirling eddy of other trashy bits didn’t make her feel any better. The rebellious act was still a reminder of her home town of Gilead, and Miz Ezzy, one of its most notable inhabitants.
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, the wolver female never went hungry or without a warm place to sleep. 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 in Gilead saved their paper and table scraps for Ezzy’s ‘boys’. The boys were worms, boxes and boxes of them that shared the shack the woman 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 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.
Her family 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.”
“Sounds lonely,” her younger sister commented on Olivia’s last visit after she described her new and luxurious apartment. The place 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 ain’t 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 it 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.”
She’d met Terrence Harkness quite by accident at a local watering hole where she and her recently graduated, and all too human, friends had gone to celebrate another successful job hunt. Though on the outside she’d cheered and toasted her friend’s good fortune, on the inside, she was miserable. Of the six, Olivia was the only one who’d yet to find a placement, which meant her life choices were now narrowed down to two. She could continue on alone eking out a bare existence or she could return home to her pack in defeat.
Terrence offered a third option. 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 was the handsomest wolver she’d ever seen. Hair trimmed, nails buffed, and skin as smooth as the silk of his tie, 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. They danced the night away.
It was like a romantic fairytale. 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. 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.
Olivia’s head was so filled with dreams she never noticed when her wolf’s purr became less frequent and gradually disappeared.
Over the next two years, her trips home became less frequent. Her excuse was that it was harder to arrange time off when she was working nine-to-five for Harkness Industries, 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 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, and then told her she needn’t be so sensitive when he saw the comment hurt her.
Soon after that meeting with her family, she met his. Neither meeting went well.
Her family tried. They greeted their guest with smiles. Her father nodded with polite interest while Terrence spoke of the success of Harkness Industries, his family’s business, and hid his confusion when Terrence’s talk turned to conglomerates and subsidiaries. Her mother beamed with pride when he complimented her cooking and concealed her disappointment when she cleared his half full plate. They were like alien beings from a different planet searching for common ground where there was none, but they tried.
The meeting with Terrence’s family was a disaster from the beginning. Their arrival at the palatial home was a complete surprise to his parents and their greeting was coldly polite. They had no idea who Olivia was, or why she was visiting. Terrence had never mentioned their relationship even though he spoke with one parent or another almost on a daily basis. By the end of the short visit, Olivia was asking the same questions as his parents.
Unlocking the door to the apartment that had once given her such pride, Olivia surveyed the now empty room where the final and humiliating revelations took place.
“Before I took you under my wing, Olivia Dawson, you were a gauche and graceless bumpkin who didn’t know what fork to use. My God, you ate chicken with your fingers,” Terrence told her with malicious distaste.
“It was a picnic!” she fumed. “And it was fried.”
She’d thought it would be fun to picnic by the pond in the park. She’d made all her family’s favorites; the chicken, deviled eggs, little pinwheels of boiled ham and cream cheese, sweet tea, and fat slices of watermelon. Terrence had taken a bite of each and then asked, with a roll of his eyes, what wine she’d chosen to go with such a kingly repast. There was no wine.
“You prove my point. You’d be nothing without me.”
“I have other friends…”
“Who tolerate your quaint country ways on my behalf. You’d have no one without me, unless you’d prefer to return to that hillbilly heaven you can’t stop referring to. If there’s no room in that little doghouse your family lives in, perhaps you can board with the crazy woman and her worms.”
The argument finally devolved into a single question. “You never did care for me, did you?”
He laughed as if she’d said something funny and then shook his head in a way that said he found her cute. Olivia was suddenly very tired of being thought of as cute.
“Are you speaking of love? I rather think it’s more of a mutual attraction, don’t you? You’re attracted to what I give you.” He waved his hand around the apartment. “This place, your clothes…” He shrugged. “Well, essentially everything.”
“You found me a job, Terrence, and I appreciate that, but I do that job well and earn my salary. Except for dinner and the nightlife in places where you want to be seen, I pay for the rest.”
“You do indeed, my dear, but not in cash.” Terrence cocked his eyebrows.
She was horrified. “You don’t mean that.”
“And there is the source of my attraction to you, Olivia. You think I’m kidding.” His chuckle contained a hint of mockery. “Your naïveté is endlessly entertaining, but we all have to grow up, don’t we?” He took a seat on the cream colored sofa she’d purchased after waiting weeks for it to go on sale. “Why do you think this sofa sold so cheaply, and for the exact amount you’d saved? Hmm? Roland and I had quite a chuckle over it.” He patted the cushion beside him. “Now let’s stop this nonsense, shall we? I find it boring. Why don’t you pour us some wine and we can continue on with the evening I’ve planned.”
Olivia had marched to the door, opened it, and bowed as she showed him the way. “I’d rather sleep with the worms, thank you. Get out, Terrence. It’s over.”
“You’re upset, Olivia.” He left, but not without a parting shot. “Call me when you’re prepared to see reason or when you have nothing left, whichever comes first.”
“You forgot ‘or on a cold day in hell’, Terrence,” she said now as she 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 a hand in paying for and what he refused to accept, she’d given away. She could no longer afford to stay here or anywhere else in the city.
Tomorrow, 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 in Gilead. She’d made her bed, and now she had to lie in it, no matter how hard and lumpy it was. She was admittedly a fool and a failure, but she still had her pride.