As the second son, Liam Reed never expected to be a werewolf Alpha. He preferred to develop software for Soft Corp, but when his brother Jason died in a car accident, their father forced Liam to assume leadership of the pack. Liam plans to govern with compassion, instead of ruling through fear, but pack member Bradley Karr undermines Liam's leadership, biding his time before challenging for Alpha. Tired of pack politics, all Liam wants is to program and find his mate, but he fears that neither is in his future.
When his mate, werewolf Cody Jones, starts working at Soft Corp as Liam's intern, sparks fly. However, a relationship with Cody could get them both fired for fraternization. And, that's not the worst problem. Cody doesn't seem to accept Liam as his mate.
Liam's only chance at happiness is to win Cody over while keeping their relationship a secret. But really, Cody would never stay with an introverted geek like him, an ineffectual Alpha failing to live up to his brother's legacy. Would he?
Liam smashed his palm down onto the dining room table. The cherrywood furnishing shook from the impact. "We've been discussing this for hours. What the hell is your problem now, Bradley?"
Frank, John Marsdale, the pack lawyer, and Richard recoiled from Liam as he glared at the annoying twit.
However, Bradley regarded Liam with a raised eyebrow. "Liam, you know I prefer to be called Brad. You asked for our opinions, and we gave them. It's not our fault you won't make a decision." He took a hefty drink of coffee, grimaced, and continued. "You have this misguided notion that you need to build a consensus. Your brother never suffered from such a weakness."
A growl rose in Liam's chest. He wanted to call the pointy-nosed prick out and slap him down, but this was the twenty-first century, and he was a sentient being. His brother might have used tooth and claw to rule the pack, but he was gone now. Liam had to lead his way. He pulled in a deep, calming breath as he scanned his family's large, formal dining room.
Glancing at Bradley's two twig-like eyebrows and his thin lips that pressed together, forming a straight line, Liam took another breath. "Bradley, you're lucky I'm not my brother. Because of that, I'm asking your opinion. It's a courtesy I feel is important to extend. We may be wolves, but we're people, too." Liam inspected the crystal and brass chandelier above the table, trying to stay in control.
Shaking his head, Bradley's eyes narrowed. "We're werewolves. The laws of the pack are well established."
Liam's wolf struggled to emerge, a howl sounded in his mind, and his skin quivered, ready to reform. His wolf desperately wanted to demonstrate its dominance to the challenger, but Liam held it in check. "Yes, and as pack alpha, what I say goes."
Bradley smirked. "How's that working for ya?"
Liam leaned forward. "Are you challenging me, Bradley?"
"I wouldn't consider challenging you." Bradley put the cup down and picked some dirt out from under his fingernail.
Before Liam could think of a reply to either the words or the snide tone of voice, John cleared his throat. "Perhaps Brad is right. You've heard our thoughts, Liam. It's up to you."
"Fine." Liam's head throbbed. He was trying to do the right thing and had wasted hours for the effort. "Your thoughts are appreciated, but I'm going to have Thomas join this council. I haven't brought in any new members since I took over the pack, and it's past time I did. I understand Thomas is on the young side, but I think he would make an excellent advisor."
Under his breath, Bradley mumbled, "Adding a fag to the council, another Liam Reed classic."
Bradley's a homophobic prick, but I will not rise to the bait. Liam's eyes lazered right at Bradley. "Did you have something to share?"
"No, Liam, you've shown your usual knack for...well, for...whatever it is you do. I'm outta here."
Liam gaped at Bradley's back as the man strolled out of the dining room. He considered calling out to the asswipe. The meeting wasn't over until he ended it, but the truth was he just wanted the man gone.
He sighed. "Meeting adjourned. Frank, stay a moment."
After everyone else left, Liam dropped his head to smack the table.
Frank sat in the chair to the right of Liam at the head and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Liam?"
He peered at the slightly older man.
A goatee set off Frank's mouth, and his blue eyes expressed sympathy. "You're going to have to do something about him, you know."
"I know. I hate this." He waved his hand around the room. "Politics."
Frank leaned closer. "Then why do it? Just have a pack gathering and beat the crap out of him. Rich is waiting to see which way you leap."
Huh? I thought we were talking about Bradley. "Rich is what?"
Frank stared for a moment. "Sometimes I wonder about you. You really don't see people dynamics."
Liam shrugged. "People are disorderly. Not like code."
"Let me take you through this." Frank huffed. "Again." He inhaled and continued. "When your brother died, everyone expected Brad would challenge for the alpha spot. Remember, no one even thought of you. You never showed much interest in the pack."
Liam grimaced. "I never had much interest. I always knew the pack had Jason. Then he was gone and Dad..."
Frank's lips rose in a half smile. "You sound surprised your father changed people's minds when he lobbied for you."
"Not surprised that people listened to Dad. Dad is something of an irresistible force. I was shocked Dad wanted me. Jason was the center of Dad's world." And I liked it. Jason was still alive and Dad left me alone.
Frank squeezed Liam's shoulder. "Your dad cared about you, too."
Liam studied the floor. "I know, but he had a son to prepare for leadership. Sometimes I think he couldn't wait to step down."
"I don't know about that." Shaking his head, Frank continued, "I think he stepped down because Jason wanted to step up."
Liam shrugged. Frank had never heard the comments his dad made toward the end of his time as alpha. How just the phone ringing irritated him. "Probably. Jason never would have challenged Dad."
"No, but your dad knew it was time. When Jason died, your dad had a choice. Let Brad take over. Come back himself. Or turn to you. The pack loved your father. They would never choose Brad if your father didn't."
"I wish Dad had come back and left me to my quiet life developing software."
"Exactly. Brad is trying to exploit that. He feeds the pack's fear that you aren't a true alpha because you don't run your own company. You just program what people tell you."
Liam studied his hands. "Do you believe that?"
"I was skeptical about you when you asked me to stay on as your beta, but I stayed for Jason."
Liam wasn't surprised. Frank would have done anything for Jason, but he was Liam's beta now. Did he support anything Liam had done? I shouldn't care, but I do. He met Frank's eyes. "And now?"
Frank didn't look away. "Jason was strong and kept the pack going, but not moving forward. Things were the way they had always been. You have plans for the pack, new ideas. Ways to make us stronger. You aren't just about imposing your will at all costs. You actually want to lead. I think your vision makes you an alpha."
Liam finally exhaled. "Thanks."
"Still, you can't let Brad undermine you like he does. Making the pack question your decisions as alpha now means when he does challenge you, the pack will support him because he'll come off as a savior."
Liam made a derisive noise. "I can kick Bradley's ass."
"Then do it. He's just causing dissension. Pack members are starting to choose sides." Frank's frown grew again. "People don't like uncertainty, so you're losing support. They see Brad as a way to become stable again."
Liam threw up his hands. "I can't just attack him for no reason. He needs to challenge me."
Frank's brows furrowed as he leaned closer to the table. "Of course you can. He's disrespectful and insults you at every turn. Jason would've taken him out in a heartbeat."
Voice going quiet, Liam said, "I'm not my brother, and I need to do this my way. I can't say I want to update the laws of the pack and then do things the old way."
"I know, but you need to interact more with the pack, show them your ideas, and counteract what Brad is doing."
Knowing Frank was right didn't help. Liam always seemed to put his foot, or perhaps it was paw, in his mouth when he tried to meet with the pack. He did so much better in small groups or, even better, through e-mail.
Liam sighed. "Let Bradley play his games. If he puts his money where his mouth is, I'll slap him down." His hand thumped the table again. "We need to learn to resolve our problems more like people and less like animals. Otherwise, we might as well shift into wolves and never come back."
"I know, but change takes time, and you need to stay alpha long enough for it to happen."
After Frank left, Liam grabbed a Diet Coke and fled to his home office. Sparsely furnished, it contained a desk and an ergonomic chair with the same plush light blue carpet his mother had chosen many years ago. Once again he considered replacing the carpet, since the wheels from his chair kept getting stuck in the fibers, but he never remembered to do it when he was in a position to do something about it. On the other hand, he ensured his desktop computer and dual twenty-four-inch monitors were top of the line.
Frank was right. He couldn't change things if he wasn't in charge. The whole situation made his blood boil and his temples pound.
He logged in to work. Sure, it was Saturday afternoon, but code allowed him to lock away his worries and lose himself in orderly logic.
As soon as he remote-connected to his work network, his e-mail icon flashed with the name Tiger Johnson as the sender. What could the vice president of human resources want on a Saturday? He clicked to open the message.
Your relationship has been brought to HR's attention. Since you are in different business units, we have ruled that it does not violate the no-fraternization policy at this time.
If either of you decides to transfer, please be aware that this decision will be revisited.
Vice President of Human Resources
Liam sat back in his chair. What the fuck?
Liam knew dating wasn't allowed between supervisors and their employees. Why would Tiger feel the need to review this case? Alice was in marketing and he was in development. They would never work in the same group. They had completely different skill sets.
Relax. He needed to relax. The morning had been stressful enough. He filed the e-mail away and turned his attention to programming.
He opened makeQueue.cpp and reviewed it. The code had been written so badly, he wondered how it could ever have worked at all. Really, who put a comment in the code that said, "Using goto here cause it'll take 2 long 2 code right"? In a document file, he made a list of the changes he planned to make to improve the code, starting with getting rid of that bug-prone goto.
The blaring notes of his ringtone caused him to jump, startled from concentration and irritated at the annoying sound. He really needed to change his ringtone, maybe to "The Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back.
"Hello, Liam?" His dad's voice poured out of the earpiece with a hint of static.
Liam's stomach dropped. "Hi, Dad."
"Rich called and told me about the meeting."
Of course he did. "And?"
"I'm glad you decided to add Thomas. He's a good friend and will be able to help you."
That almost sounded like a compliment. "Thanks."
"I need you to go to a meeting with some of our investors next Friday."
Liam shifted in his seat and rolled his eyes. I knew there was something he wanted. "I have to work. You said you'd take care of the family business."
"I have been, but you know that can't last forever. I just agreed to take the business while you got comfortable as alpha. It's been two years. This business takes care of pack lands and other pack expenses. You're going to have to take it over, eventually. Jason had no problem with it."
Liam's shoulders drooped. I'm never going to get out of Jason's shadow. "Jason had his mate helping. Maybe I should just marry Alice. She would love to take over Reed, Ltd."
A huff of breath floated through the phone. "I'm sure she would, son, but she's not your mate."
"I know, but I'm twenty-eight years old. You and Mom were kids together. Jason met his mate when he was twenty-one. If I was going to meet her, don't you think it would have happened already?" Damn. If he wasn't careful, he'd sound like a whiner.
"It happens when it happens. Alice is a nice girl, but she isn't the person you need. You'll know when you meet her. Trust me. I hope she comes soon. Since we lost..."
Liam's eyes shut as he bowed his head. He didn't need his father to continue. He grieved. They all grieved, not just for Jason, but for his mate and children. An image of the smashed car followed by a flash of the coffins, especially the small ones, passed through his mind, making his eyes sting.
"I know. I'm sorry."
His father's voice sounded quietly from the phone. "This may not be what you expected, but it's here now."
"Maybe I just want to program."
"Programming will always be there. Without Jason, the pack needs you."
Liam ended the call and stared ahead, eyes fixed on his computer screen but not seeing it.
Jason had been the perfect son, and therefore the most annoying older brother. Their father doted on him, grooming him to take over the pack and the business, and Jason ate it up. Liam had taken to hiding away in his room with his computer while Jason basked in the attention.
The day Jason found his mate, Laura, angels sang and unicorns shat rainbows.
Even Liam's big day, graduating from Cornell, had been about Jason. Laura's water broke at two o'clock that morning for the birth of their first child.
But having a big brother had been a blessing, too. Liam had been free to choose his future. He decided to become an engineer and study computer science. Ultimately, he landed his dream job at Soft Corp and was free to pursue his career, until the car accident.
His freedom ended that day. He tried to hold on to what he cared about, but it was getting harder and harder to juggle everything, and he felt so lonely. Where was his mate?
He had started dating Alice to try to fill the void. Somewhere inside, Liam doubted he would ever meet his mate, and he didn't want to be completely alone.
Liam finally got his focus back and worked on the improvements for the program.
Two hours later, he had gotten into the zone when his smartphone timer chirped. He read the clock. Damn it. He had to get ready for his date with Alice.
He plodded to his room and opened the walk-in closet. He looked longingly at the simple button-down shirts, but knew Alice would have a tizzy if he wore something like that.
Instead, he pulled out a bespoke suit and sighed. The thing cost more than his computer, but Alice had dragged him to the tailor and insisted he buy it. He struggled into the fitted navy-blue pinstriped jacket and knotted the ridiculous polka-dotted tie three times before it was good enough. Maybe he should let Alice hire a valet for him like she'd been threatening, but it just seemed like another wasteful indulgence.
Unlocking the Porsche Boxster Spyder, Liam frowned. While it was a fun car to drive, he didn't really like it. He'd inherited it when his brother was killed. It had been specifically listed in Jason's will, and he couldn't bring himself to get rid of it, even though he thought the expensive bright red two-seater sports car just screamed, "Look at me. I have a big dick." That was classic Jason, always larger than life.
Plus, Alice preferred it or the limo. Since his driver was on vacation, the Porsche would have to do.
He drove to Alice's apartment and knocked on the door. It opened, revealing the five-feet-ten-inch woman. Liam moved in to nuzzle her long neck, exposed by her short blonde hair, but Alice huffed in annoyance. Some would call her flat chested, but Liam didn't mind; he thought it made her appear trim.
"Hello, sweetie." Alice leaned out and pressed her lips to his.
Alice invited him in. "I'm almost ready to go. Have a seat." She gestured to the blue chenille couch.
Almost ready to go meant at least half an hour. Liam sat and pulled out his smartphone. He called up his book-reading app and started reading Effective C++.
Forty-five minutes later, Alice came out of her room. Liam stood and smiled.
She wore a little black dress with thin straps. He eyed her up and down admiringly and inhaled the hint of jasmine that rolled off her. Tonight, she wore the strand of pearls Liam had given her for Christmas. His brain reminded him she was attractive and he enjoyed sex with her, although he knew something was missing.
"Where do you want to go for dinner?"
Alice studied her purse. "I made reservations at No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill."
Liam's jaw dropped. "Seriously? That place is expensive."
She shuffled her feet and then gazed up at him with wide, winter-blue eyes. "I know, but it's also intimate, and the food is so good. Please?"
He knew he could afford it, but it just seemed so wasteful when it wasn't a special occasion. However, if he was even remotely thinking about marrying this woman, he had to learn to compromise. "I guess."
He held out his arm and escorted her to the Porsche. Liam drove into Boston and pulled up to the restaurant, handing his keys to the valet.
Alice peeked over the top of her menu, eyes twinkling. "I have to order the caviar service and seven-course tasting menu. What's that quote you like? â€˜It's a moral imperative.'"
Liam smiled. "Quoting Real Genius to butter me up?" Liam didn't understand why Alice liked to eat such extravagant food, but he wanted to make her happy. "Order whatever you like."
After a waiter served the steamed golden tilefish, a flaky piece of lightly seasoned fish served over a bed of pearl barley and spinach, Liam said, "My dad called today. He needs me to meet with some investors."
Alice frowned, her fork hovering halfway to her mouth. "Aw, sweetie, I know you hate that."
"I never thought I would have to worry about this." He wiped his mouth with his napkin. "But with Jason gone, someone has to step up." Liam dropped his gaze to stare at the artfully-arranged dish.
"Maybe you'll find a girl who won't mind that stuff. Someone to help."
Liam studied Alice. "That would be...nice."
Alice's eyes met Liam's. "What if we did get married? I could help you."
Liam reached out and took Alice's hands in his. "I know. I think about it, a lot." Too much, in fact. His wolf snarled inside, wanting Liam to think of anything else.
"You do?" She squeezed gently.
"Yes." Liam dropped her hands and focused on his food. "But you don't know what you're getting into." Liam tried to imagine Alice with the pack. She was the type that liked to go camping--in five-star hotels. She didn't do nature.
Her lips turned down. "You always say that. So, enlighten me."
Liam started to open his mouth, but the words wouldn't come. He wasn't ready to tell her that werewolves existed, and he was one.
"It's just, more pressure than I think you realize. People depend on me. The servants..." It sounded lame to his ears, but she seemed content.
Alice settled back in her chair. "That's why you need a partner. No one should have to do this alone."
Liam's rational voice whispered words of approval. "I... You're right, I..." But his wolf was having none of it, howling and thrashing inside. It wanted to wait for their mate.
"It's okay. I know you after being together for a year." The smile on her face looked forced. "You need to consider, analyze all the data, ponder the possibilities. So, do it. I'm not going anywhere."
Liam took her hand and kissed it. "You're too good for me."
"Yes," she said in a teasing tone. "But the heart wants what it wants."
Liam knew she was right, but sometimes a person didn't get to follow his heart.
Duties and responsibilities to his family and his pack came first, and Alice could help with the family business. Most of all, she really, inexplicably, loved him with all his idiosyncrasies and insecurities. That had to be worth something. Perhaps it was time to give her a real chance instead of waiting for someone who might never come, even if that person was his one true mate.