The Mating Game
Genre: Erotic Paranormal Romance
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Date of Publication: June 20, 2014
ASIN: Not Yet Available
Number of pages: 344
Word Count: 82,508
Cover Artist: Rae Monet
Two males…two friends…a competition for the right to claim The Heart of the Iron Stone Pack.
An alpha female at her core, Theresa Sanchez struggles to protect her young daughter, but rivalries and politics create volatility in the pack. As Theresa comes into heat, lust and need rule her body. Her pack demands only the most virile male have her. How can she choose only one mate when her body craves two—the virile beta and the man she loves?
Zachary Hunter will do anything to take Theresa as his mate, even if it means killing his best friend. However, Robert Blane is just as determined to ascend to Alpha. Both their beasts howl to mark her flesh, but only one can survive to claim her.
But with enemies circling, they must fight…for the pack, for Theresa, and for a future together.
Warning: Book contains wolf shifters, pack politics, gritty fight scenes, offbeat humor, and sizzling sexual adventures between a ménage of partners.
Chapter Five (PG-13 excerpt)
Monday afternoon, Zach showed up fifteen minutes early to Isabel’s school, preferring to wait over the possibility of being late. He stood outside the fenced playground with the other parents, mostly women, who had congregated in groups of twos and threes. Pine trees ringed the grounds, providing shade for a variety of smaller bushes.
The school’s buzzer sounded, announcing the release of school and a swarm of small people poured from the building. Zach spotted Isabel waiting with her teacher and headed toward them.
“Hi, I’m Zach Hunter,” he said, offering Isabel’s young female teacher a friendly smile.
“Ms. Spaulding,” she said, shaking his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Isabel, do you have all your things?”
“Yes, Ms. Spaulding,” Isabel said, gathering up a pink and white kitty-covered lunchbox and matching rolling backpack. “Hi, Zach.”
Zach took Isabel’s hand and led her toward the parking lot. “I didn’t realize you are such a fan of cats.”
“Not usually, but I make a special expectation for this kitty.” Isabel tilted her head to stare up at him. “Fairies hate cats. Even if Mama let me have a kitten, I couldn’t keep it because my friends wouldn’t like it.”
“Exception,” Zach said. He settled Isabel into the child booster seat Theresa had given him and got her seatbelt fastened.
Isabel frowned. “What?”
“I don’t like it when you talk to me like I’m a kid.” Isabel had long ago mastered the petulant pout.
“Isabel, you are a kid.”
“Zach, you promised.”
He sighed. “All right. You make a special exception. Not an expectation.”
“What’s the difference?” she queried in confusion.
“An exception occurs when something doesn’t conform to a general rule; an expectation is something that is anticipated.”
The drive from Isabel’s elementary school to the ice cream parlor took less than ten minutes. The child filled up the time with animated chatter, topics ranging from her favorite color of green to the superiority of chocolate pudding over vanilla.
“Without a doubt chocolate is vastly superior. Which reminds me, have you eaten lunch?” Zach asked.
“Yeah,” Isabel scoffed. “We eat at school.”
He frowned, following her into the ice cream parlor. “Well, how am I supposed to know that? And what’s with the attitude—you don’t talk like this around your mother.”
Huge dark eyes considered him. “Mama would ground me. You won’t.”
Zach chuckled. “Can’t or won’t?”
He received no answer. Isabel’s attention was riveted upon the rows of candy, bins stacked highwith every sugary treat imaginable. He attempted to herd Isabel past the confectionary section of the store but, in the end, he bought her a half pound of mixed hard candies in addition to a cotton candy-flavored ice cream cone.
“I don’t know how you can eat that,” Zach muttered, eyeing her ice cream with disgust. The neon pink-and-blue swirl drew his imagination to toxic nuclear waste.
“It’s my favorite. Chocolate is boring.” Isabel cast a pointed glance at his cone.
“Except when we’re discussing pudding,” Zach said with plenty of bite. “Speak for yourself, Munchkin. Chocolate happens to be my favorite. It’s a classic.”
“Borrring.” Isabel rolled her eyes. “Chocolate’s only better because they don’t make cotton candy pudding.”
“As you said.”
They moved outside with their ice cream to enjoy the warm afternoon sun. The September heat melted the ice cream, rendering it perfect for licking. The grassy areas of the Main Street Park were an oasis of green beneath patches of pine trees. A children’s playground was located on the north end. They sat on a park bench to eat and Isabel swung her feet back and forth.
“Do fairies like ice cream?” Zach asked.
Isabel frowned. “I don’t know.”
“I thought you knew everything there is to know about the Fae.”
She looked at him in that disquieting way of children and lunatics. “No one believes me. Not even Mama.”
“Adults are skeptical of what they can’t see with their own eyes,” Zach explained. “Most grownups don’t believe in fairies.”
Isabel giggled. “Most grownups don’t believe in werewolves but we are werewolves.”
He snorted. “Your logic is impeccable, chiquita. You must never tell non-shifter adults what you are, but even if you do they probably won’t believe you anyway.”
“Because we hide,” Isabel said.
Zach nodded. “Because we hide.”
“Like the fairies.”
“Like the fairies,” he agreed.
Isabel tossed her half-eaten cone into a trash can. “I’m full.”
“Me too.” Zach ate the point of his cone and disposed of the wrapper.
Isabel made a beeline for the swings. Zach diligently followed, prepared to push for all he was worth. He enjoyed the brief, albeit temporary, respite from the child’s relentless curiosity.
Would his child with Theresa be so precocious? Zach’s straying imagination took him on an unexpected turn into the realm of possibility. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought about having a family, but before it had always been an abstract concept. Now, he envisioned Theresa round with his child…and it pleased him beyond words.
“My fairy friend, Nikki, says that it’s okay for me to talk about fairies because the grownups won’t ever believe me,” Isabel said.
“I believe you.” Zach gave a big push that sent her swing higher.
As she swung back, Isabel flashed him a quick, disbelieving glance.
He shrugged. “I live in my imagination so I know what it’s like. My characters talk to me too.”
“What do they say?”
He flashed a wry smile. “Right now, not a whole lot.”
“But they’re still in your imagination,” Isabel stressed her point. “My friends aren’t.”
“They seem real to me.”
“That’s not the same.” Isabel pouted but pursued it no further. Eventually, she asked, “Have you figured out who killed the taxi driver yet?”
He grunted. “I think so.” Then, “No, I’ve no bloody idea.”
“I think it was his wife.”
Zach stared at the girl’s dark mane of hair as it lifted from her shoulders. He waited until she swung back and asked, “How do you figure?”
“Because, it’s always the wife or husband. You told me so yourself. It was the wife in your last book—Abandon All Hope.”
Zach groaned. “Isabel, please tell me you’re not reading my books.”
“No, but Mama reads them. And you talk to me about them all the time. Mama wants Inspector Anders to fall in love with the pretty lady from the place where they take the dead people.”
“The morgue,” Zach said. “Theresa and most of my female readers seem to want those two together.”
“Zach!” A familiar Spanish-accented voice called out his name.
Zach turned to find Mary, Theresa’s mother and Isabel’s grandmother, hurrying toward him. He smiled in greeting. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Sanchez.”
“Nana!” Isabel jumped off the swing, landing confidently on both feet, and flew into her grandmother’s arms.
“Izzy, my little love bug! How are you? Let me see you.”
“You’re an hour early,” Zach said, checking his watch.
“My doctor’s appointment let out early. Has Izzy been good for you?” Mary regarded Zach with the sort of motherly approval that set his ears burning.
“An angel,” Zach said.
Isabel promptly launched into a long-winded, furiously-paced account of their afternoon together. Zach waited patiently until the girl wore herself out.
“Thank you so much for watching my Izzy. Do you need to be going?” Mary asked.
“I should,” he said. “I haven’t written a word since yesterday and I still need to pack. My plane leaves tomorrow at seven.”
“Bye, Zach,” Isabel said, waving her hand.
“I’ll see you, chiquita.”
“Bring me a present?”
“Promise.” He crossed his heart.
Back at his car, Zach dug out his portable tape recorder that he used for keeping notes. He brought the microphone to his mouth and turned it on. “Not the wife.”
Monday evening, the entire pack gathered in the living room of Adam and Becky Teller’s spacious home. The higher-ranked dominant wolves were already assembled on a mint green couch and the matching armchairs. Card table chairs had been arranged in rows three deep for the remainder of the pack.
“Theresa, over here!” Ambra, Isabel’s aunt, waved her hand, indicating an empty seat beside her. The lovely young woman wore her dark hair perfectly coifed. Her hair and nails were flawlessly painted. Her outfit and shoes were stylish and tasteful, reflecting the high-end clothing boutique where she worked.
Unfortunately, Theresa’s ex-husband, Antonio, sat beside Ambra with his human wife to his other side. Antonio and Ambra were fraternal twins. Under normal circumstances, Theresa would not have dreamt of ignoring an invitation from Ambra. However, Antonio Gallo qualified as one of her least favorite people in the entire world.
Theresa hesitated but only fractionally, casting a glance of longing at a chair available close to Zach. However, she lacked both the status and the confidence necessary to claim it. The pack organized itself roughly, though not rigidly, according to hierarchy in any social setting. Theresa held one rank higher than Antonio and two higher than Ambra. However, Theresa’s rank only placed her in the middle of the pack.
“Hi, Ambra. How have you been?” Theresa made her way to sit beside her ex-husband’s twin. Despite Antonio’s unpleasant proclivities, his sister was a wonderful person and didn’t deserve to be punished for the bad luck of being related to him.
“Good, really good.” Ambra stared at Theresa with a lifted brow. “I could have sworn for a second that you intended to go sit with the dominants.”
Theresa blushed. “Don’t be silly.”
“Hello, Theresa.” Antonio wore a white Henley shirt and indigo blue jeans tucked into boots. At twenty-four, he was only a year older than Theresa. Once, his dark good looks had impressed her, but no more. She regarded him with distaste.
“Antonio.” Theresa bequeathed him a curt nod.
“Have you heard the news?” Ambra dropped her voice to a hushed whisper and leaned forward with the eager expression of one in possession of a choice piece of gossip.
“What news?” Theresa had no talent for subterfuge. Her face gave her away every time.
“Word is, Adam is going to retire. Robert is the logical choice to become Alpha, but Antonio doesn’t think Zach will let him have it without a fight.”
Theresa opened her mouth, formulating a neutral reply, but the call to order saved her from having to make one. The assembled audience fell silent. Adam, the Alpha, stood and adjusted the jacket of his navy suit. His white hat rested nearby on an oak end table out of deference to the fact that the meeting was being held indoors.
“Howdy all, thanks for coming,” Adam drawled in his rolling Texan accent. He received a round of greetings in return and more than a couple chuckles. “Now, I know rumors have been spreading and folks are getting worked up, so I want to address the pack to put your minds at ease. So if it’s okay with everyone, I’ll speak my piece, then I’ll open the floor to questions.”
Tension flowed throughout the pack, rooted in their fear of change. Things had been good for years. No one wanted to lose the harmony and the security. No one spoke.
Adam continued to address the pack. “When I came to this community five years ago, I did so at the request of our Sovereign. Those of you who were members then know this pack was in a sorry way; those who weren’t here have heard the stories. Dominant wolves abused weaker members. Mates and children were mistreated or outright killed.”
A stir moved through the pack at the long-buried memories of pain and suffering. Theresa shivered as bitterness, fear, and anger seized the crowd. She had always been sensitive to the pack’s mood, although her empathy sometimes failed her when she tried to focus on specific individuals.
However, as a whole, the pack shared a collective aura that allowed the transmission of emotions from one member to the next. It was a rudimentary link and a pale shadow of the powerful magic that once bound them. When the dominant wolves had been killed five years before, the fundamental connection binding the pack had shattered. Many of the lower ranked wolves who remembered those times still treated one another with contempt. Bullying and power plays were common.
“I promised then that things would get better, and I do believe they have.” Adam’s steady demeanor recalled the audience to their Alpha’s message and the present. “Bryce and those responsible for the worst offenses were dealt with.”
“New dominants have been brought in from other packs. Our hierarchy has been stable and has proved capable of surviving a healthy change. Now, I must fess up. When I accepted the rank of Alpha, I was already past my prime, and it was understood then that I’d be retiring as soon as I deemed the pack ready.”
“It’s time for me to step down.”
When the roar of protests drowned everything out, Adam lifted both hands, signaling for them to quiet down. Violent emotions ran rampant through the pack, none of it pleasant, and without the steady presence of the dominant wolves, there would have been disorder.
“Now, I understand how hard this is,” Adam said. “It hurts me too. But I want to assure y’all that I’m leaving you in competent hands. Robert Blane and Zachary Hunter are both strong males.”
“Who will be the new Alpha?” Shocked at her boldness, Theresa brought a hand to her mouth too late to silence the question. People seated nearby looked at her in surprise, and she saw Zach’s head turn in her direction.
Adam’s gaze traveled to Theresa and rested upon her for a time. He regarded her with surprise. “Excellent question, Theresa. Allow me to answer.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything else. Her voice had frozen and become stuck in her throat. Fortunately, Adam didn’t seem to require any further response from her. “Logically, it’s going to come down to a competition between the two strongest males to determine who will be the next Alpha.”
Adam looked to the side and met Robert’s gaze. The Beta wolf regarded the Alpha with stoic detachment, arms crossed and expression impenetrable.
“When I first met Robert Blane, I said, ‘Now this, this is a wolf to contend with.’ Since then, everything I’ve learned about Robert has reinforced my initial impression,” Adam said. “Now, don’t interpret my mentioning Robert first to hold any great significance. Though Zachary Hunter is something of a maverick, he has all the makings of a damn fine Alpha. I do believe that either one of these gentlemen will do right by the pack.”
Shifting in her chair, Theresa noticed signs of unease throughout the audience. There were times when Adam’s proclivity for speeches did him and others a disservice.
Adam continued, “We’ll attempt to do this peaceful-like with a mediated contest, but the simple fact is that it’s likely to mean a dominance battle when all’s said and done. If necessary, and only if there is no other recourse, then the new Alpha will be selected in a fight to the death.”
The room dissolved into chaos. Like many around her, Theresa surged to her feet. She craned her neck to catch sight of Zach through the crowd, but he remained hidden behind bodies. From her vantage, she could easily see Robert Blane.
The Beta wolf stood head-and-shoulders taller than almost everyone in the room and had the muscular bulk of a linebacker. He was African American in ethnicity with short brown hair, brown eyes, and a trimmed mustache and beard. He wore a charcoal gray suit, well-tailored to his physique. He worked as an attorney for a prestigious law firm, and was well known for being intelligent and articulate.
Adam’s voice rose to soar above the din. The power of his presence washed over the crowd and called it to order. “All right, folks. Let’s calm down. There’s still more to be discussed.”
Theresa sat down, although she felt far from calm. Her stomach churned with turmoil. Dear God. Was this what Zach hadn’t wanted to tell her? He and Robert were friends. Would they be forced to fight to the death for the sake of pack politics? The prospect of losing him frightened her senseless.
“Adam.” Becky Teller, the Alpha’s mate, placed a hand on his elbow.
Adam glanced at Becky and then chuckled. “I’m going to turn the floor over to Becky here. Just as well she should do the tellin’, seein’ as how this is really her brainchild.”
Adam conceded the floor to his mate. She radiated cool confidence that bordered on arrogance. Though human, she spoke with Adam’s authority. As a matter of pack protocol, an order from Becky was the same as one from her mate. Disobedience to her carried the same punishment as disobeying the Alpha.
Becky held up a hand. “Good evenin’, y’all.”
A round of greetings sprang from the pack. Becky waited until the din died away. She flashed a shark smile. “Adam is feeling shy about saying it, so I’ll go ahead and do the best I can.”
Becky allowed a pregnant pause to build. “In most places, a pack is more than just a group of werewolves. A pack has history; a pack is family. It is the bonds of blood that hold any strong pack together. Sadly, our Iron Stone pack has lost that vital heritage. The pack magic is dead and it will be up to my successor to revive it.”
Becky closed up her hands into fists and then extended her arms and opened her fingers, allowing a sense of loss to permeate the ambient aura. The more susceptible members of the pack responded and got teary-eyed.
Absently, Theresa rubbed her eye and her hand came away wet. She shook her head, and attempted to harden herself. She had to hand it to Becky—the woman sure knew how to work a crowd. The Alpha’s mate could reduce even the most hardened heart to a sympathetic ally, given the opportunity.
Becky turned a winning smile on the pack’s three most dominant males. “When Robert and Zach were invited to join our pack three years ago, it was with the expectation that these fine eligible bachelors would choose a mate and contribute to the bloodline. Three years later, and we’re still waiting! Aren’t we, ladies?” Becky winked, eliciting a round of laughter from the pack, including nervous giggles from the women.
Theresa felt as if she’d been punched in the gut. She pressed a hand to her mouth. Her throat closed and her heart sank. She longed to cry out, to silence the woman, but all she could do was sit there and listen. She craned her neck, trying to find Zach and located him on the couch. He appeared relaxed and unperturbed. Her blood turned to ice in her veins. He had known. Oh God, he had been expecting this.
Becky plowed onward with ruthless determination. Her voice rang out clear and loud through the room. “As a condition of becoming Alpha, both Robert and Zach will be required to choose a mate from within the pack. So ladies, put on your red dresses and your dancing shoes, because these handsome gentlemen are officially on the market.”
Excited chaos erupted throughout the room. People surged to their feet, voices raised to create a deafening roar, and activity whirled about her like a hurricane. At the eye of the storm, Theresa sat rock-still. Disbelief vied with betrayal, and a full minute passed before Becky attempted to soothe the pack.
“Now, let’s all calm down. Naturally, everyone is excited. Let’s go ahead and take a fifteen minute break,” Becky said.
The second they were dismissed, Theresa stood on shaky feet. Ambra seized her forearm. “Oh my God! Theresa, can you believe it? Who would have thought—”
Theresa failed to track Ambra’s chatter over the recriminations echoing through her mind. “Excuse me, I need to get some air,” Theresa said and shook off the other woman’s hands.
Antonio turned toward her, a question on his lips. Theresa dodged around her ex-husband and his wife and headed for the closest exit. Her path put her on course for the back patio. She made it in record time and burst onto the deck. She pushed the sliding glass door closed behind her. She seized the wooden railing with both hands. Sides heaving, she gulped the cool night air into her lungs.
Theresa’s head hurt and her eyes stung with unshed tears. Unbelievable, to think that Zach had known all along and not warned her. Had his spontaneous courtship been one of his pranks? Maybe he thought it would be harmless fun, not understanding the depths of her feelings for him.
The sound of the sliding glass door opening startled her. A cacophony spilled forth from the house. Her stomach twisted with dread when she recognized the voices of the two women who had just stepped onto the deck. Hastily, she tried to pull herself together and hide the evidence of her distress.
Donna Turnkill stood as tall as most men, only a couple inches under six foot, and had an athletic build and frizzy red hair. Her cousin and companion, Simone Sovony, was six inches shorter and had dark brown hair cut into a page boy style. Both of the women outranked Theresa in the pack hierarchy: Donna by two, and Simone by one.
Theresa waited, wishing for the ability to disappear—or even better—teleport. At first, they didn’t notice her and continued with their conversation.
“Who would you rather have, Simone, because I’ll tell you—I’d take either of them in a heartbeat,” Donna purred.
Simone laughed. “Donna, you’re such a slut. You’d do either of them—or both of them. Anyway, anywhere, any position—”
“Shut up, bitch.” Donna laughed and looked up. Her gaze froze on Theresa and then she jabbed Simone in the side with her elbow. “Look what we have here.”
“Oh.” Simone regarded Theresa with the sort of look that people usually reserved for bugs in their food.
Donna glared at Theresa with open contempt and sneered. “Too-pathetic-to-keep-a-man Sanchez.”
Theresa lifted her chin and rolled her eyes. “Nice try, but you’re wrong. Excuse me.” She moved to slip past them, but Donna blocked her path.
“Have you been crying, Theresa?” Donna asked, scenting the air.
Simone also sniffed, following her friend’s lead. “She’s probably heartbroken because Zach’s gonna pick a mate and it won’t be her. Everyone knows that she’s got the most pathetic crush on him.”
Donna’s eyes lit up and she seized on the suggestion. “Is that it, Theresa? Poor pitiful thing—no male wolf will touch you because you’re damaged goods. No one wants Antonio’s sloppy seconds.”
Staring at the pair, Theresa felt her throat begin to rumble in a low growl. Her wolf rose, swift and sure, and her eyes took on a red glow.
“Be careful,” she gritted out, but neither woman heard or respected the warning.
“In fact,” Simone said, “the only reason any male could possibility want her is because she’s proved she can whelp a pup.”
A movement behind the women caught Theresa’s attention. She glanced over to find Zach standing right behind her tormentors. Simone’s voice faded from Theresa’s awareness like an annoying insect, and she locked gazes with Zach. Abruptly, Theresa realized all noise from within the house had ceased. They had an audience—the entire pack was listening.
Zach stopped about three paces behind Donna and Simone. His expression was grim and the look in his eyes murderous. He caught Theresa’s gaze and lifted one eyebrow—a question. Theresa bit her lower lip, battling indecision. She either handled the matter herself or she allowed Zach to deal with it for her. If he stepped in on her behalf, then no member of the pack would ever respect her again.
“I’ll make this simple for you,” Donna said, oblivious to their audience. “I forbid you go anywhere near Zach or Robert. Disobey me and I’ll rip your throat out. Do you understand?”
Theresa reached her decision. Oddly, it was Zach’s unwavering presence that gave her the courage she needed. She lifted her head and stood straighter. Zach must have perceived the change and his lips twisted into a feral grin. Theresa returned her attention to the pair, but a second too late.
“Pay attention, bitch.” Simone struck Theresa with an open-handed slap across the cheek. Her head snapped to the side and a burst of red blurred her vision.
Furious, Theresa delivered a punch straight to Simone’s face, throwing all of her strength into the blow. She had spent years with Zach learning the ins and outs of fighting, because he insisted she know self-defense. But this was the first time she’d put her skills into practice. Her fist caught Simone on the jaw and knocked the larger woman to the deck. Simone landed on her back and remained there, stunned at the unexpected retaliation.
“Touch me again and I’ll kill you,” Theresa said, staring down into Simone’s face so the other woman had no choice but to make or break eye contact. Simone managed to hold Theresa’s gaze for only a couple of seconds before she dropped her eyes, conceding both dominance and her rank to Theresa.
Satisfied that Simone had been dealt with, Theresa swung on Donna. She captured the other woman’s gaze. “Not only have I given birth to a healthy child,” Theresa growled, “but I got pregnant the first time I was ever with a man. Any male would be lucky to be chosen by me, whereas you…”
Theresa sneered and made sure her voice rose to carry to the entire pack. “You’re barren.”
Donna’s mouth opened in a snarl and she frothed in her anger. “You liar! I am not—”
Theresa ruthlessly cut her off. “You are. Half the males in the pack have fucked you and you’re still childless.”
Crass, harsh laughter rippled throughout the pack.
Theresa continued without hesitation. “You don’t even ovulate or bleed monthly. Everyone with a nose knows it. You’re a bully and a bitch, but no one says it to your face.” Theresa continued to stare, but Donna refused to drop her eyes, leaving only one actionable option.
“Donna Turnkill, I challenge you!” Theresa shouted loud enough to be heard by every member of the pack.
Donna stared at Theresa in complete and utter disbelief, mouth hanging open.
For ten seconds, absolute silence reigned. Then a whoop came from a male within the house. “Hot damn, a bitch fight!”
Fast Facts About Melissa Snark:
- Melissa Snark is published with The Wild Rose Press & as an Indie author with five unique titles: A CAT'S TALE, THE MATING GAME, LEARNING TO FLY, THE CHILD THIEF, HUNGER MOON.
- Her Loki's Wolves series includes THE CHILD THIEF, HUNGER MOON AND BATTLE CRY (to be released in 2014).
- She lives in the San Francisco bay area with her husband, three children and a glaring of cats.
- She is a professional cat herder and unrepentant satirist who blogs about books and writing on The Snarkology.
Connect with Melissa Snark:
Email: melissasnark at gmail.com
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