"Why are you here?"
I stood in the middle of a ring where the snow had been cleared so thoroughly that even the dirt beneath my feet was dry. Stark was walking circles around me, his eyes as cold and sharp as nails. I'm pretty sure he had used magic to clear the snow away, but I hadn't been here to see it, and he didn't seem to be in a mood to answer questions right now.
"To learn how to fight," I answered, keeping my eyes facing right in front of me.
"And why are you learning how to fight?"
"So that I can protect myself and the people I care about."
"How far are you willing to go to do this, Amber?"
I paused, and turned to look at him as he circled around from my right. I hadn't been expecting that question. Stark came to a stop in front of me and looked at me with eyebrows lowered, waiting for an answer.
"If you're going to let me teach you to fight," he said when I didn't give him one, "then you're going to have to go as far as I decide you need to."
"How far is that?"
"It could be a few miles, it could be to the moon and back. That all depends on what you need to learn, and what you need to do." He held up his finger and pointed at my face. "You're allowed to ask questions. If you don't understand something, you're allowed to say so. If I need to repeat myself, I will. The only rule is that if I tell you to do something, you do it. We won't get anywhere if you're questioning every order I give you."
"You're my alpha," I pointed out, not without a hint of bitterness in my voice. "It's not like I can say no to you anyway."
"If that were true, we wouldn't be standing here right now, would we?"
I arched an eyebrow. "What are you..."
Tyler dying with a bullet in his neck, D.K. lying on the floor, bleeding where I'd torn his throat out, Kaylie screaming and—
I took a deep breath to calm myself. Suddenly, I was coated with a sheen of sweat, despite it being below freezing out here.
"Oh, right," I whispered, looking down at the ground with wide eyes.
Stark nodded, his face still stern as stone. "Exactly. It is possible for a submissive wolf to disobey its alpha, even to rebel against it. You've already proven yourself capable of carrying out the ultimate rebellion."
"Killing my alpha," I finished for him. A chill ran down my spine. "But I always thought that was because D.K. was weaker than me."
"That was definitely part of it," Stark agreed, resuming his pacing. "Dalton was physically weak, for a werewolf, and his grip on his pack was tenuous. He kept your packmates in line with threats against the others' lives. If he'd realized the danger you'd posed to him, he would have used Kimberly against you the same way."
My face burned hot at the thought, and I suddenly had the urge to dig D.K. up from wherever they'd buried him and slap his corpse.
"As it was, part of why you managed to beat him was because he underestimated you. He shot and killed Tyler, but he left you behind with only a bullet in your shoulder."
"It was a silver bullet," I reminded him. "It was supposed to kill me anyway."
Stark pointed at his own shoulder. "But that death would have taken minutes," he pointed at his throat, "as opposed to taking seconds. He considered Tyler enough of a threat to kill him instantly, but he felt safe enough leaving you behind to die slowly. And that was where he underestimated you."
I looked away, but couldn't suppress my shudder. I'd had to dig the bullet out of my shoulder with my fingers. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to get up, much less kill D.K. Thinking back on it, that was a memory even darker than having my tooth ripped out by the Slayers. I didn't feel like he was underestimating me. Who in their right mind would have expected someone to get up after that?
I didn't say any of that to Stark, but I got the feeling that he still knew what I was thinking. "Anyway, we're getting sidetracked. My point is, if I'm going to train you to fight, you have to swear to do everything I say without argument. Deal?"
I sighed and nodded. "Deal."
"And another thing: no more sighing. I know you don't want to be here, but you have to put that behind you the same way you're putting what you think of me behind you. Forget you even have feelings. You're not here for yourself, you're here for your mother and Kimberly."
Stark's pacing had taken him behind me, but when he said that I narrowed my eyes and spun around to look at him.
"I've been meaning to ask you," I said, not bothering to mask the venom in my words. I was willing to let him train me, but I wasn't going to pretend to respect him, no matter what he said. "What's been going on between you and my mom?"
Stark froze in his tracks and slowly turned to face me, his eyes colder than ever. I took that as an opportunity to keep talking.
"I know I'm not imagining things," I accused him. "The night I woke up from my fever, you were both in her bedroom. You weren't wearing a shirt. What the hell is going on, Stark?"
Stark took a deep breath. "That's none of your business, Amber."
I folded my arms stubbornly. "She's my mother, Stark, and the only real family I have left." I let those words hang in the air for a few seconds, making sure he caught my drift. "I think I have the right to know what's going on with her. In fact, how do you expect me to keep her safe if you're keeping secrets about her from me?"
Neither of us moved for a minute, and during those sixty seconds I was taken back to the first time I'd ever seen Stark. It had been at night, when I was checking out the ruins of my old house after Hendricks had collapsed it. He'd been there waiting for me, cloaked in shadows, and I don't think I even would have realized he was there if he hadn't meant for me to see him. That night, he'd reminded me of nothing more than a spring loaded trap, wound tight and ready to go off at a moment's notice. Tyler had been with me, but even my gigantic, musclebound packmate hadn't felt nearly as dangerous as Stark did.
That all came flooding back as I looked at Stark standing in front of me, his eyes as chilling as a midnight blizzard, and suddenly I regretted pushing him so far. Not that I felt bad for him, but a spring can only be tightened so much before it snaps and the trap goes off on whoever's close to it. I tried to tell myself that Stark would never do anything to hurt me, but the look he had in his eyes right then...
"All right," he finally spoke up, and took a step back from me. "I'll tell you what. I'll give you five minutes. If you can land a punch on me during that time, I'll tell you everything. If not, you shut your trap and don't bring it up again."
My face burned hot and I clenched my fists by my side. "You told me no more secrets!"
Stark shook his head. "Yes I did, but some secrets aren't mine to give away. If your mother feels like telling you, that's up to her. I won't, though. Not unless you can punch me."
"Now who's being unreasonable?" I snapped, taking a threatening step toward him. "If you can't put your own feelings behind you, then how do you expect—"
"Your time starts now," Stark interrupted me glancing down at his watch.
I paused, and ran my eyes over him. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to use my anger to make me attack him so he could thrash me and lower my confidence so I’d be more willing to listen and learn. How dense did he think I was? I watch movies, after all. If he was making a challenge like this, that meant he was confident I'd have no chance at all to beat him. And if Stark didn't think I had a chance, that meant I didn't have a chance.
"You're down to four minutes," he said, looking at his watch again.
But what if he was wrong, my wolf asked? It had taken notice of what was going on, and it was excited. My alpha had just issued me a challenge. You couldn't just ignore something like that! Besides, he'd just got done telling me how D.K. had underestimated me, and I'd made him pay for it. What if Stark was the same way? I didn't fool myself into believing I could beat him, but he hadn't said I had to beat him, had he? I just had to land a punch on him. Just one little punch...
What was my mom doing with him?
Did... I really want to know?
I clenched my fist by my side. I wanted to do it. I wanted to punch Stark as hard as I could, put him on the ground with his head spinning. I wanted to teach him to respect me, even if he was the alpha. I wanted to show him that you didn't mess with my family without suffering consequences. I wanted my mom... and my dad... and everything back... to... normal...
Suddenly, I felt tears stinging my eyes, and I looked away, scowling, to blink them out.
"One minute, Amber."
I took a deep breath. "Put your watch down."
Stark hesitated, but then lowered his arm.
"She's the only family I have left," I said again, "because of you."
Stark frowned, but didn't reply.
"Whatever it is you two are doing..." I had to stop to keep from choking on my emotions. "What makes you think you deserve her?"
The muscles on Stark's face tightened, and I braced myself for sharp words. When he spoke, though, his voice was almost as heavy with emotion as my own.
"I don't," he said. He drew in a shaky breath, and then shook his head. "I don't."
Suddenly, I was reminded of another member of my old pack. Kaylie, Tyler's sister. The one who took the brunt of D.K.'s aggression. He had killed her father, so to keep her brother safe she had gone to bed with him every night for who knew how many years. She had acted strong, but when she'd finally told me her story I'd finally realized just how broken she was. And now Stark was the same way. Broken to pieces like a China plate thrown on the ground, and then gathered up and held together with his own two hands, trying to convince the world that he wasn't broken at all.
I was mad at him.
I hated him.
I... felt sorry for him.
"I don't deserve her," he said again. "And I'm sorry for what I've done to you."
When those words came out of his mouth, it dawned on me. Stark wasn't like Kaylie. He was like me! Every day, he had to get up and look at someone whose family he had killed, whose life he had ruined. Just like I did every time I saw Kimberly. And even though he was doing everything he could to make me happy, I...
Oh my God... I was treating him the same way Kimberly had treated me.
It all made sense now. The guilt, the way he just went along with everything I said and did without complaint. It was exactly what I had felt whenever I tried to reconnect with Kimberly. And now I was throwing it all right back at him. At least Kimberly had the excuse that she was just a child and had a giant pissed off mutant wolf living inside her. I was almost a freaking adult!
But that didn't make things right between us, did it? He had killed my dad. At least Kimberly might someday see her parents again. My dad was gone forever. What was I supposed to do?
Don't forgive him, a small, quiet voice whispered inside me. But put aside your feelings.
Stark had been right all along. Crap.
"I don't care," I finally said. I looked up at him, and Stark must have recognized that something had changed in my eyes, because he stood up a little straighter.
"What was that?"
"I don't care what you're doing with my mom, but..." I hesitated, but forced myself to keep talking with an edge in my voice. "Stark, if you ever hurt her, I'll kill you."
Stark nodded once. "I can accept that."
I sighed and then nodded back to him. "Fine. Now teach me how to fight."
NEXT TIME: Amber vs Stark! Who’s gonna win? As if you even have to ask…