Stephanie Manada stood in the middle of The Village center like she owned the place. And until our pack proved we deserved to keep our ranch, her show, The Real Werewives did own us. I couldn’t resent her for it as she gave us her brightest smile before she launched into another of her perky pep talks.
No, I couldn’t expect her to know how many times this pack had had the opportunity to fix this problem before she got called in to do our dirty work.
I couldn’t blame her for the wounds that hadn’t healed, simply because she showed up with a tourniquet.
I blamed myself.
The contestants of The Real Werewives of Colorado—which included the leaders of our pack—formed a semi-circle around her, hanging on her every word. Even Stephanie was dressed up today for the first claiming ceremony this pack had seen in over twenty years.
“Today is a massive step forward in securing the treaty,” she announced.
No shit, my wolf grumbled.
I promised Saint I’d be on my best behavior during the ceremony, so I didn’t roll my eyes. Today scraped the absolute surface in what we had to do to secure our pack. The first steps up the mountain that loomed over us. Having two members of our pack claim mates looked fantastic on paper, but the packs that made up the council, the ones who decided if we kept this land or lost everything, wanted results.
The mates meant nothing if we didn’t have an heir. A future.
And the council knew when we were putting up a front.
“Now that Saint and Mason’s episodes are complete, I’m excited to announce the next couple going in front of the camera.”
My wolf stood at attention, hackles raised. She shouldn’t be the one choosing.
Yup, it was official. The Colorado Ranch pack answered to The Real Werewives. The council would be howling when they saw this snippet on TV.
I glanced at Saint, but ever since Gretta arrived at the ranch, he’d been off in his own world, thinking The Real Werewives would solve all our problems while humans ran roughshod over our land, our traditions, and our reputation with the other packs.
He didn’t want to sell our land to human developers, but he had no problem handing over control of the pack to a camera crew.
Stephanie waggled her eyebrows and grinned. “The next episode will chronicle Blaire and Austin’s love story!”
The announcement got a cheer from the crowd. Wait, what? I looked at Damon and Sterling, expecting them to be showing the first signs of shifting. My wolf was ready. But instead, they were clapping Austin on the shoulder and congratulating him and his soon-to-be human mate.
Why were we going along with this? My wolf did not get the memo.
The clock was ticking, and we didn’t have time to wait our turns if we were going to have a scrap of dignity left when we saved this treaty.
Sunny, the woman my wolf called to the ranch to solve this problem, stood beside me, smiling tightly at the scene playing out before her.
She’s disappointed too, my wolf rumbled. Damn, he wanted out. But I’d promised Saint I’d behave. No outbursts on camera. Like I was the one making the pack look bad. Like I wasn’t being taken for granted.
Are you really going to make her wait? my wolf demanded answers.
“Why were they chosen as the next couple?” I asked. Mason glared at me. He was the pack peacekeeper, the one who kept the two livewire contingents of the pack from imploding.
“Because they were the closest to their own claiming ceremony before we had to change our schedule,” Stephanie said. The Real Werewives attracted throngs of paparazzi. They’d originally been gunning for Saint’s mate, Gretta, but in the process, they unearthed some juicy tidbits about Mason’s mate, Laura, and exposed our pack’s weakness to the entire world.
I took a deep breath. My wolf was begging to shift, twisting inside me, no longer willing to listen to human, bullshit reason. I couldn’t be mad at Stephanie for this decision. She didn’t know about the time I thought I’d found my mate, or how I lost her.
Unless Saint had told her. At the time, he didn’t think it was a big enough deal to fight with me to get her back. So he probably didn’t think it was worth mentioning now.
He couldn’t have told her how much it meant to me to claim Sunny, because it wasn’t the type of small talk cowboys made as they worked at a ranch. And I didn’t plan on spilling my guts in front of a camera, either.
“If someone else gets close to claiming their mate, does that move them up the priority list?” I asked.
“We’re constantly reevaluating.” Stephanie gave me a nervous smile. “This season threw us a nasty curveball when the paparazzi showed up. Safety is our top priority.”
“We don’t need to rely on a camera crew to keep us safe,” I huffed, every second coming dangerously closer to my wolf. “It’s more like you want to make sure no more of your precious footage gets leaked before you can air it.”
“That’s enough, Levi,” Saint growled. “We all want this to work. It will. Trust the process.”
He’d been telling me some version of that line ever since he became alpha. And here I was, with my mate beside me, and I had to wait until a human said go to claim her?
No. Hell no.
Stephanie cleared her throat, but it did nothing to dissipate the tension between my alpha and me. “Gretta and Laura are almost ready, and we’ll start filming in minutes. If you have any business you want to take care of before the ceremony, this is the time. If you want to talk about your episode, or anything having to do with The Real Werewives, let me know. I’m happy to make time for you.”
Her gaze was squared at me, and even my wolf appreciated it. She’d extended an olive branch my own pack had snapped years ago.
I gave her a nod, but she wasn’t the woman who’d solve this problem.
Sunny looked incredible in her blue dress. Her tawny skin glowed in the late morning sun, and her dark hair was pulled back, exposing the long line of her neck. What I’d do for another taste… We’d gone on one date before the shutdown. It was enough to know that I’d do anything to make this woman mine.
“Want to take a walk?”
Her pink lips curled into a smile. “A walk sounds fantastic.”
Mate, my wolf still wanted to shift. He wanted to claim her, not wait his turn. That was exactly what I had in mind.
I took her hand in mine, surprised every time that it wasn’t as soft as I expected. This woman had fought for everything she had. That was how I knew this plan would work.
Most of the pack was gathered in the center of The Village. Even the most cynical critics of Saint’s leadership wouldn’t miss a claiming ceremony. The Real Werewives crew was busy making friends and putting up appearances. Good. None of them would pay attention to us as we sat on the bench away from the center overlooking the river. This time of year, it was angry and restless with runoff from the mountains.
Sunny’s skirt fanned around her as she took a seat. She fussed with it, like she wasn’t used to being dressed up either. Sometimes, I could let myself believe this woman was a wolf. There was something inside her begging to be set free.
Her wish would be my command.
“I’m happy for Blaire and Austin,” she said as I sat beside her.
“That should be us.” I put my hand on her arm, and heat surged from her skin, confirmation that I was doing the right thing. “It will be us.”
“Should we talk to Stephanie?” Her honeyed gaze met mine.
Mate, my wolf insisted.
I shook my head, and Sunny furrowed her brow.
“She might not be able to change the schedule for this episode, but we could be next in line,” she said. “Unless she wants to try to pin down Kayleen for Sterling. Today’s only the second time they’ve been near each other. I’d be going insane if I were her.”
“I’m not waiting for permission to take you out.” My words were practically a growl, and my mate wasn’t used to it. “I know when it’s time to claim my mate.”
Her eyes widened. “What are you suggesting?”
“We don’t wait. I want to take you out tonight.”
“I’d like that.” She looked at her lap and smoothed the lace over her thighs. My gaze followed the move, wishing I was the one doing it. “But the Werewives—”
She grinned. “They’re doing this to keep us safe.”
I tipped her chin to meet my gaze. “Do you think a human can keep you safer than a wolf?”
Her breath stuttered in her throat. The sensation rocketed through me, making my cock twitch.
“No,” she said. “But I don’t expect anyone to come to my rescue. I’ve always saved myself.”
“You don’t have to do that anymore. You’re my mate.”
She relaxed at the declaration. “I’m ready to find out what that means.”
“Even if it breaks the rules?”
“I’ve never been good at following rules.” She chuckled. “But the last thing I want to do is get kicked off the show.”
“The show doesn’t matter,” I said quickly. “You’re staying here with me.”
To give her a glimpse of that future, I leaned in and kissed her. Soft and gentle, to prove I could protect her. But I wanted more than just the taste I’d been given on our one date before production had been slowed to a maddening trickle. I snaked my hand to her nape, pulling her in closer.
Sunny parted her lips, letting me inside. Every stroke of her tongue against mine was pure bliss.
I’d only thought I’d found my mate before The Real Werewives came to turn our world upside down, and I damn near let it ruin me when her so-called true mate took her away. But everything was different this time, and nothing would tear us apart.
“You’re wearing my lipstick.” Sunny laughed as she ran her fingers over my lips. She pulled a little mirror out of her bag and handed it to me. “I think I got it all.”
Only the faintest streaks of hot pink remained. My wolf grumbled as I wiped them away. Right now, it was the closest I could come to claiming this woman.
She startled when I handed the mirror back to her and took a look at herself. “This is why I never wear bold colors. They get everywhere.”
“You look gorgeous.”
“I look like I just made out with a hot wolf.” She raised her eyebrows before she reapplied. “And like I’m sneaking back into my parents’ house after a date.”
“If we’re going to do this, I need your phone number.”
“We’re breaking all the rules.” Production discouraged us from having any contact with our mates outside of the show all our encounters could be captured on camera. We were like characters in a simulation, waiting for them to hit the button and let us play.
“It will be worth it.” I hoped I wasn’t making a promise I couldn’t keep as we exchanged phones to enter our information. I would never break a promise, but my wolf’s heart had wounds that had yet to heal. “What do you want to do tonight?”
Fire ignited in her eyes as she tucked her phone back into her bag. “Whatever we can get away with.”
“I can think of a few things.”
“Looking forward to it. But the first place you better bring me is back to that ceremony or we’ll have a camera following our every move sooner than we anticipated.”
I leaned in for another quick kiss, this one on her cheek. “The Real Werewives will never know what they’re missing.”
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