I stare out past the silver barred cell in the NOPD station, my hands resting comfortably in my pockets. The entire building smells of piss and desperation. Some hints of anger or loneliness shift through, reminding me how many humans reside here. I am normally surrounded by nothing but wolves, so this is a change of pace. There are five other men in this cell with me. They range from the wanna-be gang banger to the everyday shoplifter. A large, bearded man in the corner keeps turning the gold band on his finger. Married. I pity him. The two weasely ones stay next to each other, trying to make light of their situation. Shoplifting. Predictable. Another guy slouches against the wall. He has passed out, and I can smell the drugs leaking from his pores.
The station is busy with the sounds of keys chiming, feet shuffling, phones ringing, and voices echoing through the walls. But it isn’t the noise that gets me. My body tenses, and I close my eyes tightly as I hear it again. Keys.
My arms are bound at my sides, silver shackles around my wrists, holding them tight against the cold cobblestones in the basement of my father’s house. I am here because it is his house. Not mine. Never mine. He has made that perfectly clear. Eighteen, only eighteen, but you would think I would be used to his level of love. It will help me, he says. Make me stronger. Pain is temporary, but it teaches you, makes you. But to me, it felt like it is making me into something worse. Then I hear the keys. The solid metal door shakes as the lock is turned and pushed open. Light from the flickering flames in the hall breaks the darkness as Antonio St. Augustine fills the space. I squint, my eyes aching from the brief, gentle assault of brightness.
He walks into the room, if that’s what you would even call it. In reality, it is a torture chamber. Here he is in his element. Shackles similar to those that hold me hang on walls stained with the blood of his enemies, yet this is where he keeps his son.
He places the keys in the pocket of his overpriced suit. I hate suits. I hate him. He smells my disgust, my anger, and his eyes light with the red ember that scares every wolf on this continent. He looks every bit of what an Alpha should, a hulking mass of a man who is not a man and never has been. His hair is black, dark, and cold like his soul would be if he had one. I hate that I resemble him. I’d starved myself to be different, to change my mass and how I looked, so maybe I wouldn’t be associated with him. But it didn’t matter. I was his only heir, and he made sure I remembered that.
“How are you feeling?” His voice fills the room. Calm yet demanding.
“Fantastic.” My voice cracks. I haven’t had water in three days, another form of punishment. My lips are cracked, and I could feel it every time they burst, bleed, and then heal.
“Don’t look so mad. This is what happens when you disobey. With your,” he sneers at me, “indiscretions.”
His words cut, but I don’t look away. I do not bow my head like everyone else does. Indiscretions. He says that about anything I do. If I rebel in any way. I huff, ignoring the comment. “Where is Mom?”
“She is not coming down here to see you.”
That has me looking away. Of course not. He won’t let her. She is everything he is not. Everyone in and outside of the pack knows it. Where Antonio is this beast, my mom is the flower. She is an angel and the only light in this miserable, dark place.
He jangles the keys in his pocket once more, drawing my attention as he shifts, leaning against the wall.
“You will be down here for two more days. Then we are traveling to Romania for a meeting where you will learn exactly what it takes to be alpha one day.”
It was my turn to sneer. “I do not—”
He pushes from the wall with blinding speed, his finger raised and the red practically bleeding from his eyes as he advances. The wolf in me hides, scurrying to the back, darkest part of my mind. I hate myself for the way I recoil. Flinching in any way is a death sentence.
“It does not matter what you want, do you understand me? You, unfortunately, are my only heir. If I could find another replacement instead of what I am forced to deal with, I would. Make no mistake about that.”
I clench my jaw, not meeting his gaze. I don’t want him to see the shine that fills them at his words. I don’t say anything, nor did I turn my head as I hear his shoes pivot toward the door.
“Two days. Two days and that attitude better be gone by the time we leave.”
The cell door slams behind me as a heated discussion fills the cell, snapping me back to reality. I know my eyes are crimson, so I close them, containing the beast that as it bucks against my control. I don’t know what it is about New Orleans, but ever since I got here, my body is reacting as if every day is a full moon. I’d found out I can change at will here, which could be a terrible, terrible thing. It may take more control than I have to keep my other self at bay.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, keep talking, tough guy,” the officer is saying as I glance over my shoulder. He pushes in a man who smells of liquor and body odor. He wears a jacket and jeans that have seen better days. The scruffy, unkempt man stumbles in and turns to flip off the officer. I scent the bloody knuckles on his hands before I see them.
“Fucking prick,” he mumbles as the officer leaves, shaking his head. The other men in the cell with us don’t even pay him any attention. He monitors the room, wiping under his nose as he sniffles. His eyes meet mine, and he shrugs before moving to sit on the long bench at the back of the cell.
Ben Arnold. Age 34. Recovering alcoholic and an abusive ex of Haley Tunnell. He followed her from Cincinnati to New Orleans, disregarding the restraining orders she’d had placed on him. Every time he found her, he would beat her and follow her everywhere she went. He is a deplorable human scum bag and just what I need. I move for the first time since I got here, sitting a few inches from him. I extend my feet and cross them at my ankles. I fold my arms across my chest, seemingly relaxed, but I have a motive. I always do.
His eyes cut to me, and I don’t need to turn to see the way he notes the tattoos covering my hands and my attire before he dismisses me.
“Ben Arnold. How many felonies can you get before they lock you up for good?” I ask, not moving anything but my lips as I speak. The cell perks up since it is the first time I have said anything since I was shuffled in here.
Ben turns to me as a corner of his lip curls. “Who the fuck are you?”
“A business partner.”
He moves, turning to face me fully. “Are you a narc or something? Did that bitch Hayley send you? How did you get in here?”
I fold my arms tighter, shaking my head slightly. “So many questions, and none of them even close to being right.”
I note the clock on the far wall. 3:25. Five more minutes. The guy in the corner makes a noise as he lurches forward, the drugs still leaking from his body.
“How do you know me? How about that tough guy?”
“I know Haley put you in here. Do you want payback?” I turn, a corner of my eyebrow ticking.
That got his attention. “Who are you?”
I smile. “Like I said. A business partner.”
The door that separates these cells from the station buzzes, and two officers walk in. They look at each other before pulling the keys out of their pockets and opening the cell door.
“Mr. Rodriguez, lucky day for you. You made bail.”
Rodriguez. That was the alias I had given when they brought me in, along with the fake fingerprints. I stand in one smooth motion as Ben looks at me.
“And Mr. Arnold. You, too,” the other officer says with poorly hidden disgust.
Ben looks from me to the officers and back.
“Like I said. A business partner.”
It is all the incentive he needs, and he follows me as we are led out of the station. I monitor every single piece of material from their desks, locations, windows, rooms, how many worked here, and how many empty seats there are on my way out. Several officers just looked at us as we passed the front desk. The lady at the front desk lifts her gaze as we leave but says nothing. I open the door to the busy city, and I jog down the steps toward the black Range Rover waiting at the curb. Ben stays close behind, not saying a word, but I can feel his shock and uneasiness.
I open the passenger door and pull the burner phone from the glove box. Turning back, I slip a single white card from my jacket pocket with only an address on it.
“When this rings, you answer. If you don’t?” I place the phone and card in his hand. “Well, you won’t like what happens if you don’t.” He looks from the phone to the card and back to me. “The address is a safe house. You and a few others will stay there until I call you. “
His scent changes. “Who says I have to? Why do I even need to listen to you?”
I place my hand on his shoulder, squeezing hard enough to get a wince from him. “It’s either this, or you stay behind bars for the rest of your miserable, pathetic life. Do you want to go back in there?”
He shakes his head
“Good. Answer the phone when it rings.”
With that, I slide into the passenger seat, and the SUV pulls away. I rest my hand under my chin as I prop my elbow on the door, chewing at the pad of my thumb. I ripped the thin layer of clear plastic that holds the fake fingerprints I left at the station.
Dominic clears his throat from the driver’s side. I don’t look or meet his hazel eyes. He is one of my most loyal people besides Mia. He had been a part of my father’s pack and left with me once the rival pack decimated us. Or so the story we told. He wasn’t born there but rather someone who fought his way in. He is a foot taller than me with a little more muscle, which is saying something. He is African American with hair clipped close to his scalp. He may not be my biological brother, but he was always the closest I had.
“I’m hungry,” he says, cutting his eyes towards me.
“What time is it?” I ask before climbing in the back of the Range Rover. He has a pile of clean clothes on the back seat. I take off the dress pants I am wearing and switch them out for jeans.
I take off my button-up shirt next, exchanging it with a clean white t-shirt. “Good. Her shift just started.”
Dominic doesn’t say anything else as he smiles at me through the rearview mirror and heads toward the coffee shop where Haley works.