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MARK

 

Within the wards of Shady Grove, there were few quiet respites, but I’d negotiated with the king and queen to keep this little piece of paradise untouched. I sat on the edge of a rock face that overlooked a small lake. The fishing here was good, but the view kept me sane. It also gave me a place to go when I needed to be away from the whole of the pack.

 

Tall pines lined the shores with other rock faces jutting out around it. I remembered coming here with Winnie once. We jumped off the rocks into the water. I’d tried to get her to go skinny dipping, but she wouldn’t. I called her a coward, and she almost burned my hair off. She didn’t fear being alone with me. She feared what her mother would do to me if we did anything more than make out. I should have known that those moments were fleeting and that one day she would leave.

 

Every time she brought it up, I didn’t want to talk about it. My heart ached, and she knew it. We’d agreed not to talk about her leaving or the mate stuff. I admired her strength and passion. But it was her sweet moments that dug into my heart and stayed with me. She gave me hell, and I loved every minute of it, because eventually, she’d give me one of those moments.

 

Not long before she left for Steelshore, I’d pissed her off about something, and I let her storm off. I went home to lick my wounds to find her sitting on my front porch with an apple pie.

 

“Winnie,” I said.

 

“Apple pie,” she said.

 

“My favorite.”

 

“I made it earlier today and intended to take you back to mom’s house to surprise you with it. But I lost my temper. Again.”

 

“It wouldn’t be us if you weren’t mad at me about nothing.”

 

A smile brightened her face. “Want some pie?”

 

“That’s a dangerous question, Wynonna Riggs.”

 

She blushed while clearing her throat. “Apple pie.”

 

“I have ice cream.”

 

“I know.”

 

“You know?”

 

“I already went inside and checked.”

 

She was so clever, and her smiles and blushes fueled my happiness. But it wasn’t long after than when I realized that my power shouldn’t be focused on Winnie.

 

I’d accepted my role as Alpha. My pack needed me more than my heart needed her. I felt like I was born for this role. But tonight, I had almost walked away from all of it. For Wynonna Riggs.

 

Before I got too deep into my feelings, I heard movement behind me. Troy Maynard once could sneak up on anyone, but since his wolf died, he sounded like a rhinoceros running through a muddy field.

 

“Hey, Dad,” I said as he took a seat next to me.

 

“You did good saving this for us,” he said, looking over the lake in the darkness. A crescent moon sat high in the sky over us.

 

“I’m figuring it all out. Might be a little slow.”

 

“Hell, no. You are amazing. I’m so proud.” He paused for a minute. I knew why he was here. I’d just talked to Winnie and given her the necklace I’d bought for her. She wasn’t the only one that needed a compass. I’d gone to town two days ago and visited Brittany Arizona and had the compass tattooed over my heart. I didn’t dare show it to Winnie. It wasn’t for her anyway. It was for me. A reminder to follow mine wherever it led me.

 

Everything I’d said to her was absolutely true. Even now, I could feel the calm of the pack. Word had spread quickly that Winnie had returned to Steelshore. I faced the daunting task of finding a mate that would support the pack. I’d given myself time to make the decision and make it with the full support of the pack. If that decision was to walk away from it all, then so be it. Somewhere in my gut, I knew that wasn’t the answer.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked.

 

“I will be. Just give me some time, Dad.”

 

“I’m not rushing you, Son. The pack won’t either. Despite their uneasiness, they recognize your sacrifice.”

 

I stood, looking up to the moon. “It wasn’t a sacrifice. She has already moved on to Kyrie. I needed to understand that and seeing her made it all too real. I just really want her to be happy.”

Dad stood and patted me on the shoulder. “You can hate him if you want.”

 

“I do.”

 

He laughed and it echoed around the lake. “I love you, Son. You’ve made the Shady Grove pack stronger with your decision. Who knows? Maybe one day she will find her way back.”

 

“Maybe,” I replied.

 

He stalked off into the darkness. War seemed to be on the horizon again with the disturbances in Winter. I know Winnie and Nick were facing hardships in Steelshore. We seemed to be barreling forward toward a new conflict. I’d made the decision to make the pack stronger, but in many ways, it had made me stronger, too.

 

Winnie would always be my first love. She might even be my last. But now, my only love was for my pack. I was the Alpha of the Shady Grove pack.