Alaskan Tigers Book Ten
David. In three years, he had become a man. The sun-kissed skin, his brown hair, and his face were handsome enough he could’ve been a model. Through his honey brown eyes, he watched her as she took him in and where there’d once been a sparkle, there was only concern and sadness. How much horror had happened since she had left the clan? What level of destruction brought them to this new position and him as their Alpha?
“It would seem our guest is a little hesitant now that Reece told her that her family is no longer among us,” Ryder explained.
“Ah, well, I’m glad you’ve persuaded her to come.”
“I just didn’t see the reasoning in me being here.” She tried to push confidence into her words, but they came off more as a question. “I might as well be on my way.”
“What if I told you I might be able to help you find your parents?”
She took a deep breath and swallowed her hope. “Do you know where they are?”
“No, but I might be able to find them.”
She shook her head and shoved a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear, which the wind had tossed into her face. “If they’re smart, they’ll live off the grid like I was, making it nearly impossible for you to find them unless someone stumbled upon them.”
“That’s why I knew where you were.” David’s lips curled up into a coy smile. “You can find anyone if you know where to look.”
“If you knew…” Once again, she shook her head and refused to believe it. “That’s not possible. If you knew, Frank would have sent someone after me, either to drag me back home or eliminate me. He wouldn’t have allowed me to be free. Not after what I did to him.”
“He ordered me to search for you, and I did. I followed you all the way to Alabama, to your little cabin.” He nodded to the bench a short walk through the grass, and without asking her if she’d like to sit, he began to stroll toward it, leaving her no choice but to follow if she wanted to hear what he said. “I searched the area for possible threats to you and then called Frank. I told him I lost your scent.”
“You’d have risked your life for me if you’d have done that.” She couldn’t place her finger on it but she believed him. He had risked his own life for her.
“Frank was beginning to trust me. At that time, it wasn’t clan knowledge that my father had me working under Frank but I was.” He sat down on the bench and looked up at her. “I counted on the fact that Frank would take my word for it and wouldn’t send anyone else after you. Otherwise, he’d have killed us both.”
“I’d have been dead if I had stayed.” She sank down next to him. “His final demands were more than I could suffer through. I’d have rather been killed than do what he asked.”
You shall be my mate and produce a proper son for me who will lead this clan. He held her against the wall, sliding his hands down her arms. A proper son. Not like that piece of shit one I have now. His mother spoiled him, and by the time, I killed her it was too late. He’ll never lead this clan like I do. Our son will.
For weeks, David had been trying to piece together his badly damaged clan. With only fifteen members remaining, it was appalling the level of destruction they had suffered at the hands of the former Alpha. He should have challenged Frank years before and taken over the Connecticut Tigers, but it was tragedy that finally forced him to make his move. When his youngest sister, Shelly, made a stupid decision, it had not only resulted in her death and the deaths of many members of the clan, but it almost killed his other sister, Mira, as well. The clan was ravaged by disaster, and every time he attempted to put it back together, something else would fall apart.
If things inside the clan weren’t bad enough, shifters were sniffing at his territory. Alphas wanted to expand their rule, and Lieutenants sought to strike out on their own and overtake the Connecticut Tigers. They were beginning to close in on him, and soon he’d have to battle to keep his clan—a battle he wasn’t sure he’d win, especially if multiple parties descended on them at once.
His combat skills were minimal at best. Since taking over the clan, he had been working hard to ready himself but the clan’s needs came first. Now, he regretted that decision. As the threats intensified, he was almost helpless to defend himself and the clan. Under Frank’s control, none of them had been trained as guards. At this point, it was now or never.
He had always planned on committing to the Queen of the Tigers, Tabitha, and the future she was trying to build for the shifter population, once he got the clan under his rule. They had been through so much that adding another adjustment they had to overcome would make things harder. With their current volatile situation, he questioned his decision to wait.
His sister Mira’s last comment to him ran through his thoughts: A safe world for our kind without Alphas like Frank—what could be so bad about that?
“What was that?” Tim, his father, strolled across the living area. Even in his mid-sixties, his father remained toned with only a few gray hairs mixed into the light brown, adding character instead of age.
“I was just thinking about Mira and the offer again.” He met his father’s gaze and waited for his disapproval to show. One of the biggest disagreements they had since he took over was committing to Tabitha. His father wanted nothing to do with that and couldn’t see any of the benefits or changes she’d bring to their population.
“It’s your choice. You are, after all, the Alpha here. Who am I to question your judgment?”
“Dad, that’s exactly what I’m trying to stop.”
“An Alpha’s role is to be the dictator over the clan.” Tim sank down into the chair across from David as if a ton of bricks rested on his shoulders. “You need to remember that. Otherwise they’re going to kill you. I’ve lost enough already. I don’t want to add my son’s death to that list.”
Family dynamics might be different for tigers than for humans, but his family had lived in one room his whole life. This resulted in them building a weird relationship. He wouldn’t say they were close but definitely closer than a lot of shifter families. Lately, a new tension had developed between him and his father he wasn’t sure how to deal with. Dad hadn’t just lost his youngest daughter, but his mate had also been killed at Frank’s hands. Still, David suspected his father blamed him and Mira for the loss. They might not have been the ones who took their lives, but it was Mira’s support of Tabitha that had turned the bad situation into a disastrous one. While she was safe in Alaska with her new mate, David was stuck here trying to deal with the outcome.
He had been keeping Dad’s attitude from Mira so she wouldn’t worry additionally about them. He wouldn’t allow her to come to Connecticut yet, and he hadn’t been able to leave the clan to see her, so all they had were a few short video messages every few days. Things were too unsafe for her there at the moment, and having her mate by her side would only make things worse with the clan. Frank had instilled fear in the members, vowing to hand them over to Styx if they didn’t obey. Torture and death proved more than enough of a deterrent to convince them to fall into line. No one had known Styx was no longer the bogeyman of the tiger world. He had given up the life of an assassin to join Tabitha and the Alaskan Tigers as an Elders guard.
Even knowing things had changed with him didn’t eliminate all of David’s concerns that his sister was mated to a former assassin. While she might be protected from some of his enemies, there would be others who would see her as a way to take revenge on Styx. He didn’t like the new danger that now surrounded her.
“Are you even listening to me?” Dad’s voice cut through his thoughts.
“Yes, Dad.” He nearly growled before he regained control of his frustration. “I’m ruling this clan the best I can.”
“Siding with them isn’t going to make things easier.”
“I know you’re against it, but it’s for the best. You need to accept this is what’s needed at this time. This clan won’t survive without some help. Mira’s right—”
“I don’t want to hear about Mira.”
“Dad.” He took a deep breath. Mira was a sensitive subject between them because, as far as their father was concerned, she had been the root of what happened and had betrayed their family. Although not the truth, it was what he felt, so there was no use trying to change it. “You might not want to hear it, but she’s right. There are worse things for our kind than what Tabitha and Ty are trying to do. Alphas who like how Frank used to operate need to be eliminated.”
“Frank was a good man, and if you’d run this clan like he did, you’d be a great Alpha.”
“Enough!” He jumped to his feet and began to pace. “This is my clan, and because you are my father, I’ve listened to your comments—but no longer. I’m not Frank and never will be him. I won’t run this clan as he did. He was a vindictive Alpha who brainwashed and tortured his members.”
Tim glared at him, anger seeping off him. “I thought pushing you toward him and having you as his right hand man would have taught you something.”
“It did teach me something. It taught me how not to do things. Being an Alpha is more than ordering people around. An Alpha is responsible for his people’s safety and well-being.”
“Enough. You’ll do what you want, so let’s just leave it at that.”
A knock on the door interrupted David’s response. “What is it?”
The door opened, and Ryder stepped through. “Sir.” He bowed as Frank had always required but it only served to upset David.
“You don’t need to do that,” David reminded him. It didn’t matter how many times he told the clan they didn’t need to bow whenever they came before him. Years of conditioning under Frank wouldn’t be erased overnight.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, sir.”
“Don’t worry, Ryder. I’m leaving.” Tim stood and walked toward the door. “You and our Alpha can deal with whatever brought you here.”
Even as his father left the room, anger rose in him. While in private, Dad had made little effort to hide the fact he believed David wasn’t running the clan as he should. His tone as he uttered Alpha marked the first time he’d revealed his disgust to another. If Ryder caught the snide comment, he didn’t acknowledge it.
“Come in, Ryder, and tell me whatever new issue has arisen.”
Ryder stepped farther into the room. “Some of the clan members are in an uproar because Heidi is packing. They see her brother arriving this evening to take her away as another loss to our family.”
“Is this what she wants, or what her family is demanding?” Heidi had come from another clan when she mated one of their members. He was trying to remember the details but all he could think at the moment was it was somewhere out west and that her family had been unhappy when she had come there.
“I tried to speak with her, but she’s extremely upset and it’s difficult to understand what she wants. She says one thing and then another. It’s unfortunate because we’ve lost so much already. I was hoping you might be able to talk to her. If this is her decision, then I’ll make sure the clan members understand and support her instead of making it harder on her. She’s already suffered a great deal. We all have.”
David watched the man before him and appreciated the eye contact. Ryder was unlike the other members of the clan who barely looked at him and would have never come to his quarters, a thought that made David once again consider promoting him to Lieutenant. He’d had the initiative to speak with Heidi and try to calm the clan members before seeking out the Alpha, which granted him another point in David’s book.
“Bring her here. I’ll speak with her.”
“Yes, sir.” He started to bow before he stopped himself with a shy smile. “Sorry, old habits die hard…”
“Once this is settled, we need to have a discussion as well.” Something clicked in that moment, and he made the decision to promote him. This was his first decision as an Alpha and for the clan, but it wouldn’t be the last.
While he waited for Ryder to return with Heidi, he glanced around the Alpha quarters. He had effected minimal changes but there were other things he wanted to do. His list was growing, but once he had a Lieutenant he could count on, there would hopefully be less to stress about. The clan was important to him and, if they were going to survive, he had to make their safety a priority. If there was one thing Frank had taught him, it was that a clan had to be run with an iron fist. Anything less would leave him open to challenges. He wouldn’t be vindictive or torture his members, but there would be no doubt as to who held control. Their sustained future and survival demanded that much from him.
He grabbed his phone from the makeshift desk he had constructed near the window so he could look out over the clan’s grounds as he worked. Green grass stretched ahead for as far as the eye could see. The summer would be coming to a close soon, and the cool winds of fall would blow colorful leaves all over their land. As he looked out, he realized there was one thing missing. Homes—it was something he wanted to rectify, and soon. With only fifteen members, fourteen if Heidi left, they deserved their own space.
All his life, his family of five—his parents, two sisters, and he—had lived in one room. He wanted better for the clan and he’d make that happen. They were moving into the future, and that meant they needed to stand on their own feet. They must get out and spread their wings. No longer would they live in rooms that were nearly as dark as tunnels with one small window per unit that wasn’t even big enough for someone to climb out of because Frank was always concerned with people trying to leave after curfew.
“Frank, you sure did a number on us. It will be years before we function like other clans. I’m going to fix this.” He slid his finger over the cell phone screen and unlocked it. The time had come for him to vow his commitment to Tabitha, the Alaskan Tigers, and the future of their population. This decision would cost him, and he only hoped he was doing the right thing.
He shot a quick text to Mira. I’m ready. Set things up with the Elders.
Being mated to Styx, one of the Elder guards of the Alaskan Tigers, she’d have a better chance of setting up a conference call without him having to interfere with their schedules. Having her deal with that would also allow him to handle Heidi’s situation first.
With the text sent, he slid his phone into the pocket of his jeans and glanced down at the pad on the table. His to-do list stared up at him without a single thing crossed off. It seemed like it was getting longer by the minute.
Ryder stood in the doorway. “Sir, if you’re ready.”
“Bring her in.” He moved away from the desk and back to the sitting area with the hope that it would seem less formal and intimidating.
“Heidi, he’s ready to see you now.”
The young woman with golden brown hair that fell around her shoulders stepped into the room. Terror filled her eyes as she looked toward him. The loss of her mate had left dark circles under her eyes, and no longer was there a smile on her face or a sparkle in her eyes. The Heidi who had come to the clan a few months ago was no longer standing before him. Only the shell of the woman remained. Losing a mate was like losing part of yourself. Mating brought two pieces together and made both of them whole. Now that he was gone, Heidi would need time to grieve and adjust, but she would always know that he had died protecting her.
“Sir…” Her voice cracked as she bowed to show her respect.
“Come have a seat, Heidi.” He didn’t bother to tell her the bow wasn’t necessary as he gestured toward the sofa.
Out of the remaining clan members, she was the only one who hadn’t vowed her loyalties to him. When the rest of the clan had done it, she had been distraught over her mate and he had another member escort her to her private quarters. As the weeks passed, he hadn’t pressed, giving her time to grieve and decide what she wanted. Even now, he wouldn’t force it, except the current situation required that she make a decision to stay or return home. If she wanted to stay, he couldn’t fight her family and her former clan without her commitment to him as her Alpha.
“I’ll wait in the hall in case you need me.” Ryder turned back to the door.
There was a moment of shock and maybe a dash of fear before Ryder joined them in the sitting area.
With Heidi on one end of the sofa and Ryder on the other, David took the chair. “Ryder informed me of your leaving.”
“With Brad gone…” She took a deep breath and visibly tried to force the tears away. “I don’t belong here any longer.”
“This is your choice?” He made sure it was a question instead of a statement, but she didn’t answer. “You don’t have to leave. This is your home if you wish to stay.”
“It’s been made clear that it isn’t.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “My brother will be arriving soon, and he’ll escort me…”
“You paused just than because you couldn’t say home. That might be where your family is, but it’s not home to you anymore, is it?” When she didn’t answer, he continued. “I’m telling you that you can stay here. No one else’s opinion matters unless they plan to challenge me for my position of Alpha.”
“My family has made it clear I’m not safe here.”
He scooted his chair closer to her. “Things will be changing, and soon those who threaten us won’t be an issue any longer. I’ll make sure you’re safe if you want to stay.”
“Walter’s made it clear…” She shook her head and covered her mouth with her hand.
“Sir, if I may,” Ryder interrupted. When David nodded, he continued. “Brad’s father, Walter, was so upset over his son’s death that he’s said some nasty comments about Heidi.”
“Upset over Brad’s death!” Heidi raged. “I’m his mate, but Walter made it sound as though he was the only one who mattered. Even now, Brad’s…remains are with him. He won’t let me have that last piece of my mate.” Sadness, fury, and undeniable grief coated her outrage.
“I’ll deal with Walter and see that Brad’s remains are returned to you.” He laid a hand over hers. “If you want to stay here, you’re welcome. I’ll make sure you have no additional problems with him.”
“They don’t want me here,” she mumbled through her tears.
“I’m Alpha here, not them,” he gently reminded her. “Losing Brad was a great loss to our clan and to me personally. I considered him a good friend, as I do you, and I would hate to see you leave here because of Walter. You know he was a big supporter of Frank, and losing them both has cut deep for him. Instead of cherishing the last connection he has to Brad, he’s pushing you away because of his own grief.”
“I’m grieving, too, but I’m not acting like that.” Her words came out as more of a whine than anything else.
“I know, but you’ve always been a stronger person than him. You’ve come to a new clan to make a home with your mate. You dealt with Walter’s hatred, Frank’s vindictive attitude, and some of the clan’s displeasure at having an outsider come into our land when many were unmated within our ranks. Yet, somehow, in the months you’ve been here, you’ve made this your home. You became a part of the community. You have friends here, and while I know they can’t replace the loss of your mate, they can stand beside you while you grieve and help you through it.” He squeezed her hand. “Heidi, you’ve seen the clan at its worst, and now that I’m in control, things are going to change. I’m going to make it better. Stay.”
“My brother wants me to come home.”
“What do you want?” Ryder pressed. “You’re not committed to any Alpha at the moment, so you get to make this decision without that pressure. Do you want to go back to your old Alpha or stay here under David? You know David’s not going to run the clan like Frank did. He and Brad were good friends. He’ll make sure you’re safe and happy here.”
“Ryder’s right, but this needs to be your decision. If you want to stay, you’ll have to vow your loyalty to me. Only then can I fight to keep you here. I’ll make the call to your brother and former Alpha, so you won’t have to worry about explaining things to them. No matter your decision, I’m going to deal with Walter.”
They sat there in silence for several minutes. David didn’t want to pressure her, but he wasn’t sure how long he could stand the silence before he said something. He would do whatever she wanted, and if that meant her leaving, he’d support her decision. Brad was a close friend, or at least as close as they could become despite David’s previous position under Frank. Because of that, he wanted to make sure Heidi was happy. The silence was approaching the uncomfortable stage when she finally nodded.
“I want to stay. My memories of him are here, and I want to see the clan move beyond Frank and into the light. It’s what Brad would have wanted. He tried so hard to protect the members of this clan. He died to protect me. The best way to honor his memory is to stay here and do my part.”
“Then we will make it so.” David nodded. “You’re giving up an opportunity to return home to your family and a stable clan. I will do my best to ensure you don’t regret it.”
“Thank you.” She wiped her tears away, leaving behind wet streaks on her cheeks. “I know you’ll do whatever is best for the clan, and that’s what matters. I’ll help in any way I can.”
“I’m glad you said that.” He released her hand and leaned back in his chair. “The coming days and weeks are going to be a big adjustment, and I want your help. We’re a small clan, but most of us don’t interact with each other much. Frank forbade socializing, so the only times we were all together were for unfortunate occasions and our meals. That needs to change. We will no longer be prisoners.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“The clan is going to need support, especially the widowed mates. I want you to help them to adjust, console each other, and assist them accept what I will be announcing soon.” He glanced back at Ryder. “I’m telling you both this in the strictest confidence, and it must not go any further than between us.”
“I’ll do whatever I can.” She agreed. “This is my home.”
“Yes, sir.” Ryder nodded.
“I will be vowing our commitment to Tabitha and the Alaskan Tigers. Once I do that, I’ll inform the clan and Tabitha will send some support to assist us. Guards to begin training the selected to secure our compound. Our enemies will see our supporters and will back off.”
“You’re doing this just to keep the clan free of others who wish to overtake you and make the clan their own?” Heidi questioned.
“You already know that my sister, Mira, is a supporter. It’s why everything happened as it did.” He paused for a moment, remembering pushing her toward the door and begging her to run. There had been no doubt in his mind that if Frank got his hands on her, she’d have been killed. David wouldn’t risk her, but he didn’t realize getting her out of harm’s way would cost him so much personally, or have such an impact on the whole clan.
“Finding out she supported bringing a better future to our kind was the final break in Frank’s sanity.” Ryder shook his head. “It was only a matter of time, but I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
“He was becoming more paranoid by the day. Members were brought in for questioning because he felt like they were turning against him. He tort—” David stopped himself before he finished the word torture and glanced at Heidi. Brad had been one of the people Frank thought had begun to turn against, and the day before his death, he’d been tortured with the hope that he’d reveal whatever information Frank was looking for.
“You don’t have to censor yourself. I know.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “Brad was a good man. He tried to shelter me from what was happening within the clan, but when he was brought back to our room, there was no hiding what had happened. I doctored his wounds the best I could. I think that was the first time I realized how dangerous things were getting. I begged him to let us leave before something worse happened.”
“He told me, but leaving would have signed your death warrant. Frank would’ve had you killed.”
“Styx…” She swallowed and regained her composure. “He’d have come after us just like we’d been warned.”
“That’s another thing.” He glanced to the end table where a family photo was displayed, the last one of them all together. Instead of looking at the false smiles spread across their faces, his gaze was on Mira. “Styx isn’t the assassin he once was. He’s now a guard for the Alaskan Tigers’ Elders…and Mira’s mate.”
“You can’t be serious.” Shocked, Ryder leaned forward. “What, now he’s killing for the opposing side?”
“Killing isn’t the right word.” David chose his words carefully. There was no doubt that Styx would kill someone in the line of duty or to protect those he cared about, but he was no longer the paid assassin he had been. “He’s the second in the Lieutenant’s mate’s guards. Styx is no longer an assassin. That is another thing we will have to help the clan to adjust to, because eventually Mira will visit and her mate will no doubt escort her.”
“After years of everyone being brainwashed to believe he would come after them, that might be more of a struggle to overcome than the clan accepting your commitment to the Alaskan Tigers.” Heidi looked between the two before her gaze settled on Ryder. “You’ve been here your whole life. What do you think? The threat of Styx was never used against me by my former Alpha.”
“She’s right,” Ryder agreed before David could answer her question. “It’s hard to believe someone who’s had such a career as an assassin would ever settle down to be a second in the Elder guards. He’d have to report to the Captain, the Lieutenant, and the Alpha. It’s too much hierarchy for someone with his past.”
“Be that as it may be, it’s still the truth. I’ve spoken with him myself, and with his Elders. He’s a changed man.” David glanced back at the family photo. “Maybe Mira can help convince those who have doubts. As his mate, she’d know the truth, and she was always well liked within the clan.”
“Sounds like there are going to be many battles ahead.” Heidi twisted her wedding ring. “Brad would have loved to be a part of the changes, to see the clan rise above Frank’s control.”
“He’s a part of this through us. He’ll never be forgotten, and there is no better way to honor his memory than with you helping the clan through this difficult time,” David reassured her.
Brad wasn’t the only one who would have enjoyed seeing the clan move out of the shadows and into the sunlight. He’d have been leading the pack if he was here, making sure everyone was adjusting well. Without him, David hoped he’d be able to manage the job. The cost to overpower Frank had been great, and he’d make sure no one had died in vain. Whether they had been a supporter of Frank’s or against him, none of that mattered now. The new clan would be united in the memory of those who were no longer with them.
For Shelly and Brad.