Midnight Kisses – Leia Stone, Raye Wagner

THE LATE SUMMER BREEZE, unusually hot and dry for Montana, washed over me, bending the tall grass. Mixed with the scent of lavender and lilac, my father’s musky scent hit me, followed by the sound of his heavy footfalls. I’d shifted back to human after a run in the woods, and my skin still tingled; my wolf close to the surface. Smiling, I sat up and turned toward him. “Hello, Father.” The moment I saw his somber expression, my heart tumbled into my stomach. “What’s wrong?” Without waiting for an answer, I sprang to my feet and sent out my alpha heir power, trying to sense if anyone in the pack had been mortally injured or killed. Nothing felt out of the ordinary, so why did he look so … stricken? “Father?” He plastered on a fake smile, but the expression never touched his eyes. “The alpha king has called for you. It’s time.” My gaze dropped to the stiff white paper in his hand. Embossed lettering danced on the page, moving in golden swirls, and there was no mistaking the logo: a capital A above an island, its snow-capped tip surrounded by rippling waves. We all knew that symbol at the top of the paper, an official declaration from the alpha king. I tried to steady my breathing while my heart made an attempt to escape my chest. “Already?” Swallowing the lump at the back of my throat, I blinked, determined not to cry.

Tears were not befitting an alpha’s daughter. No one wanted a leader whose first instinct was emotion. I needed to be strong for me and my pack. But before I could stop myself, words tumbled out: “I thought I had another year at home.” “So did I,” my father said, his nostrils flaring. His eyes blazed with emotion. Was it fear? Rage? As quickly as I saw it, he reined it in. Of course, a shifter must control their feelings at all times lest they lose themselves to their animal instinct. “But you’re of age.” He extended the letter as if he couldn’t stand to touch it any longer, and a sob formed in my throat.

These mountains, this blue sky, the trees covering our land … the pain of leaving home tore through me. I was born of this place, connected to the earth here like all of our pack. To go to Alpha Island, to leave my pack … the thought made my stomach churn. I wouldn’t be permitted to see or speak to anyone from home for four years, only letters—and only if I could find someone to bring them here, to the mortal realm where our pack was exiled. Judging by the frequency of visitors, the odds didn’t fall in my favor. I yanked the paper from his hand, angry with the injustice of the system. “They don’t even like our clan. We all know it! I hate that we have to play by their rules.” My father frowned at my outburst. “It is the way of the alpha, and our pack needs you to lead.

Without training your magic, you won’t be ready to take over when I die.” I grimaced, knowing the other option. Those who refused the summons to Alpha Island were sentenced to death, traitors to their pack and their alpha heir blood. One hundred percent not going to happen. My father cleared his throat. “The pack will need a strong leader when I’m gone. You must train. Show the other packs we have sufficient power to deserve their respect.” I wanted to protest or pout, but at nineteen winters old, and as the alpha’s daughter, I needed to act like I had my crap together. So I took a deep breath, shoving my emotions away to deal with later, and nodded.

“I’ll make Crescent Clan proud.” He opened his arms, and it took me an awkward moment before I understood the gesture. My father was not one for unnecessary affection. He taught me to be strong, to never show weakness unless it served a purpose. While I struggled at times with adhering to his strict doctrine, having him fold me into a stiff hug meant this was a big deal for him. As his arms wrapped around me, I felt the lump in my throat grow. Peering up, I looked into his eyes, the same pale blue as mine—the only part of him I’d inherited. Only, my eyes burned with unshed tears while his glittered like crystal, hard and sharp. “Do you wish you had a son?” I whispered. He pushed my silver-white hair away from my face, shaking his head.

“Never. You’ve been your mother’s greatest gift to me.” Before I could blink them away this time, the tears spilled down my cheeks. I thought of the stories my father had told me about the woman who died giving birth to me and gave him a small smile. My father rarely talked about my mother. It must’ve upset him too much. I was the only piece left of her. My father’s commanders had urged him to take a breeding companion after her death and try to have a male heir, but he refused. It was just me. Me and Dad.

“Show them what you’re made of, Nai.” He bopped my chin, and just like that, I was brought back to my sparring lessons as a child. He’d said the same to me before every match. Reaching up, I traced the white crescent moon, our clan’s alpha mark, on his forehead, and my fingers thrummed with energy. His link to our clan’s magic always gave me little zaps when I touched it. His mark was an exact match for the one on my head. I needed to be strong like he’d raised me, regardless of the rumors about the other packs and the stories of what happened on Alpha Island, regardless of the fact that I wouldn’t see him for four years. “Hold down the fort while I’m gone,” I said, pulling away. “I’ll be back before you know it—an alpha heir, ready to serve.” I saluted him with a silly grin, hoping to keep things light.

Pursing his lips, he cleared his throat. “Just be safe, Nai. The other heirs won’t like another Crescent Clan wolf on the island.” I waved him off, feigning confidence I didn’t feel. “I’ll be fine.” But we both knew the island was dangerous as were the trials. We walked over the packed dirt path toward the main lodge together, and for the first time, my father checked his long stride and paced beside me, indicating we were equals. Members of the pack stopped what they were doing and tipped their heads in respect as we passed. I held my chin high, clutching the paper in my fist while pretending not to be nervous when all I felt was worming trepidation. We rounded the corner of the log-style lodge that served as the pack’s headquarters, and I stumbled when I spotted four Alpha Academy guards wearing matching black shirts with the island symbol embroidered on the left side like some stupid fraternity.

They stood beside a shiny black SUV. I skittered to a stop, staring nearly open-mouthed at their hulking figures. Men didn’t grow this big unless they were dominants. All four of them stood well over six feet tall and wore black baseball caps. That was shady … especially if they were covering marks on their foreheads. They might even be from Midnight Pack. The thought sent fiery tendrils of anger through my chest. The ruling pack could bite me, but… My pace slowed as I compared my fraying cutoffs and tank-top to their swanky threads. I didn’t need to arrive looking like a Montana farm girl even if I was one. All of the guards stood as still as statues.

None of them spoke as my dad and I approached. “I need to leave now? Like, right this minute?” I mumbled under my breath, hoping I was wrong. My gaze dipped to my pale feet, the skin dusty all the way up to my ankles. Sadly, I wasn’t Cinderella; I wasn’t going to a ball, and those beefy dudes were definitely not my Fairy Godmother. An outfit change definitely wouldn’t hurt. My father gave a curt nod, eyeing the guards with disdain. “Lona is packing your things and will be out shortly.” Damn. Damn. Damn.

They should’ve given us a day at least. How was I going to say goodbye to Callie and Mack? They were out hunting and wouldn’t hear the news until I was long gone. I huffed. “Fine.” “Remember, your cousin is there,” Dad whispered. “He’ll be looking to expose your weaknesses.” I grunted and shook my head at the unnecessary reminder. Nolan had always looked out for Nolan, except when he was chasing some female around like it was breeding season. His mother and my father didn’t speak after a falling out, but she still carried alpha blood, so she could technically take over the pack and so could her son. “It’ll be fine,” I said, not wanting my dad to worry.

Lona came out the door with my worn duffle; the faded green bag was almost as big as her body. Tears tracked down her wrinkled face as she crossed the porch and descended the stairs. “Lon.” I ran to my childhood nanny, a surge of protective instinct for the petite woman welling within. “We all knew this was coming. I’ll be fine.” Apparently, “fine” was the word of the day. She nodded, sniffling as she handed me my things. “They used to give notice—at least a couple weeks. I could’ve made a nice dinner…” Lona displayed her love through food, and no one, including my father, complained about that.

She was an amazing cook. She pulled me in for a long hug, forcing me to drop the huge duffle I’d just taken. With her affection, the mixture of fear and sadness swelled within my chest, bubbling up into my throat. If I didn’t leave ASAP, I was one hundred percent going to bawl—in front of everyone. Through the bond, I could feel the clan approaching, and sure enough, when I spun toward the SUV, a Land Rover no less, the entire pack stood there, crowded in the grassy clearing among the old pickups and dirt bikes. As one, Crescent Clan all dropped to one knee, holding their right fists over their chests. Something they’d only done for my father, in times of great respect. I was totally going to lose my cool. Swallowing hard, I bowed to my people. “It’ll be my honor to serve you.

” My father was the alpha link for our people’s magic; his fire magic could keep them alive in the bitter Montana cold. When he died, Crescent Pack’s link would transfer to me —if I graduated Alpha Island. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility or respect that came with being alpha, not yet. It was something that had to be earned. My father leaned in and whispered into my ear. “Beware the alpha king and his heirs. All they want is to retain power, and they’ll stoop to anything to get it.” As if I needed those reminders. Midnight Clan was the reason my pack was cast out from the magic realm into the mortal world. They were dirty, high mage suck-ups.

I would never get involved with them. I gritted my teeth and nodded as fierce determination filled me. I was the only child of the alpha of Crescent Clan. I’d go to the island and fight for my place, fight for my people, fight to keep our magic strong. I hefted the canvas bag over my shoulder and marched toward the guards waiting to take me away. As I approached, I studied them. They looked identical. Legit. The four dudes were practically carbon copies of each other… quads, or whatever four people who looked exactly alike were called. Brothers? Obviously.

Same height, build, even the same pinched expression of disgust, which their matchy-match sunglasses didn’t hide. What was their deal? They glowered as if I were the offensive one. Yeah, I hate you too. Their outfits designated them as royal guards to the king, and anything related to the Midnight Pack I hated with passion just out of principle. Dark hair peeked out from beneath their caps as my gaze ran over their chiseled jaws and then to their muscled arms. Of course, they were beautiful. The assholes always were. The closer I got, the more my ire rose until irritation prickled my skin, and I had to grit my teeth to keep from snapping at them. Who did they think they were? Sending four guards to collect me like a criminal! Nolan only had one. This was disrespect through and through.

Obviously, they weren’t too high on the food chain or they wouldn’t be here in the mortal realm escorting me. But why four? That wasn’t normal. Did they think I was a flight risk? I inhaled through my nose and growled when I smelled their dominance—all four of them. This close, their earthy musk blended, and the scent both burned the inside of my nose and lured me. At least one of them smelled really good, but I pressed that thought down and tried to ignore it. One of them cocked his head to the side, the side of his mouth curled in what might be a conspiratorial smirk. He peeled away from his clone brothers and circled to the driver’s side. The one standing next to Driver Dude’s vacated space looked ready to explode with anger; his muscles were so taut. His nostrils flared, and he dropped his sunglasses just long enough to level me with a green-eyed vitriolic glower. What the hell? How dare he challenge me on my land? Punch him in the face? Or let it slide? “Rage, stop,” the driver snapped and chucked a half-empty water bottle, hitting the one who glared at me square in the chest.

Dude didn’t move, just kept his evil glare fixed on me. Hah! His actual name was Rage? How fitting. The guard on his right bumped him with an elbow and then climbed into the passenger seat. After he closed the door, Rage stepped to the side and opened the rear passenger door while keeping his head turned toward my clan. Never look away from a threat … it was like he didn’t trust us. He stood there, a silent sentinel, waiting for me to get into the car, and I growled. The final clone brother limped around the back before getting inside, favoring his right leg. I took one last look at my father and Lon and the rest of my pack and nodded. There would be no big goodbye; it just wasn’t the way. See you guys in four years … if I survive.

“I need to put my bag in the back,” I growled at Rage. “Especially if you expect me to sit between two of you brutes.” I circled my hand to encompass the big dudes already in the car. Why did I have to smash in with four giants? One of them grunted, and the hatch rose, probably activated by Shotgun Dude. I tossed my bag into the cargo area and then climbed in, sliding into the center of the leather bench seat, and then got smooshed into Clone #3 as Rage got in on the other side. He closed the door with a shoulder-check to my side that forced me to bump the mute dude on my left. “Excuse you,” I growled at Rage, glaring at him from the corner of my eye. Someone needed anger management. He raised his eyebrows over his mirrored shades and said, “Oops.” His deep voice was gravelly and did something weird to my insides.

Not butterflies, definitely not butterflies. More like murder hornets. As soon as the giant douche on my right settled into his seat, I popped him in the ribs with my elbow. “Oops,” I shot back. “That’s enough,” Shotgun said. The scent of leather and car freshener swirled in the vehicle, but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by eau de male wolf. The worst thing you could do to a dominant wolf like me was to trap her in a vehicle with a bunch of other dominants. I’d be lucky to get through this drive without ripping off someone’s head. Ignoring my annoying escorts, I steeled my heart and leaned forward to stare out the window. My gaze landed solely on my father, but his stoic expression, combined with the knowledge he couldn’t see me, kept me from waving.

The engine of the SUV purred to life, so quiet compared to the rumbling old truck we owned, and I wondered if the disparity of wealth had anything to do with our pack’s banishment from the magic realm. I closed my eyes and rested my head against the back of the seat, feigning sleep. Mother Mage, help me get through this drive without becoming a murderer. With my eyes closed, I let my thoughts wander. What was I getting into? The magical vow my father took as a young teen before entering the island—decades ago—kept him from telling me exactly what to expect. I’d prepared my entire life for battle, propriety, and the way of the alpha. But having been banished from the shifter realm when I was just a baby, I didn’t have the advantage of knowing what lay beyond the veil. Pretty sure Amazon didn’t deliver there. Nerves churned and twisted my insides. If I puked, I’d definitely be aiming for Rage.

Driver Dude drove down the winding road, the only way in or out of Crescent Valley, while I drummed my fingers on my bare knees. The vehicle was clearly built for luxury, or at least, I’d heard such from the young men in my clan who dreamed of lavishness. But the pothole-ridden path was meant to discourage visitors, so I relaxed and let the movement rock me, lulling me into semi-lucidity. As soon as we hit the paved street, my heart lurched. “Have you eaten yet today, cub?” asked the brother who sat shotgun. Rage, the grouchy one to my right, snorted. “She’s hardly a cub, Justice.” Justice? Rage? What kind of names were these? I ignored their domineering question and peeled my eyes open, staring at the heads of the two in front. Not really identical. Driver Dude’s hair was straight; only the ends curled around the collar of his shirt.

But Shotgun’s hair was wavy—Shotgun, aka Justice. I glanced at the silent brother on my left, but he was staring out the window. Forcing a dry swallow, I faced Rage. The dark curls poking out from his cap strained against whatever product he’d used to try to tame it. His profile was like his personality, all hard angles … except for his lips. Blushing, I forced my attention down … to his neck, where his pulse feathered between tense muscles. His arms were jacked, the muscles curved and dipped, straining against the confines of his shirt. He clearly had a standing date with the gym. Probably where he burned off the steroids. Driver Dude angled his head and muttered, “I don’t remember her name.

” Nice. I had Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Rage, and Justice as escorts. I hated to have a pity party so early on, but why me? I let the thought bounce around my head and then realized it was useless. No one else could take my place. As much as I hated our system, I’d known this was coming. I just thought I had more time with my father and our pack. “Who cares what her name is, Noble? Why does it matter if she’s hungry, Justice? She’s Crescent Clan.” Rage’s voice was more animal than human by the time he was done. Oh, hell no. “Fewer words, buddy.

You’re annoying me.” I glared at the one named Rage and was rewarded with an absolute feral look. Rage growled, his canines elongating. What is his deal? “Reel it in, Rage,” the brother on my left snapped, stretching his arm around my back to smack king d-bag on the arm. “If you shift in here, we’re all going with you.” My mouth dried, but before I could contemplate the horror of five dominant wolves trapped in an SUV, the brother on my left poked me in the ribs. “My brother asked you a question, and it’s rude not to answer. Have. You. Eaten?” I knew they were brothers; they looked insanely too much alike.

“Well?” he demanded, his jaw snapping shut with a click. “I’m not hungry,” I muttered, returning his glare. Not true, and my stomach promptly rumbled loudly, declaring my lie. Male wolves and their need to feed a female wolf was beyond sexist and annoying. I’d starve before accepting food from them. It was a move for power, and I wouldn’t play into it. The brother to my left sighed, and I rolled my eyes to the roof of the car. My attention was captured by the knobs and buttons; I wondered what they all did. Was that a television screen? I was going to ignore these jerks all the way to the island! The driver shook his head. “Listen, cub, I can’t bring a hungry wolf to the island.

We have an hour drive before we hit civilization.” A green and gold package landed in my lap. “There’s a granola bar to tide you over,” Justice said from his shotgun seat. Rage smacked Justice in the back of the head. “Why are you being nice to her? Let her starve.” “Calm down.” Driver dude’s voice was softer than the others; he was clearly the voice of reason. The brother to my left looked at the driver next. “Noble, would you like to offer her a refreshment as well?” The driver’s hands clenched the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. “Piss off, Honor!” Noble? Rage? Justice? Honor? What kind of freaking names were these? I glared at Rage beside me and leaned into him.

Placing the food bar in his lap, “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll decline—on all counts.” The driver, Noble, chuckled. “I think this cub has claws.” I liked them better when they were mute. “What’s your name, cub?” Noble asked as he maneuvered around the potholes on the road leading out of town. Oh, now they were going to be friendly?


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