“Mommy, I wanna go. I wanna go! I don’t like her, Mommy!”
From the bed where she lay trapped under heavy, sweat-soaked covers, Beth strained to reach for the little girl screaming and hiding behind the other woman in the room, the one who stood over and stared down at Beth’s pale, gaunt face with a cold smile and glittering eyes. But she had no more strength. Her hand fell upon the sheets like a dead thing, skeletal fingers trembling.
“Mommy,” the child sobbed and tugged on the other woman’s shirt, small face turned away. “She’s scary, I don’t want to. I don’t want to! I don’t want to!”
“It’s all right. You don’t have to go to her. Mommy will protect you. Mommy will protect you from the bad, scary lady.” The vicious smile she shot Beth was victorious and smug, full of poison, and she stroked the girl’s hair while motioning at the attendant standing by the bedroom door. “Take Caroline to her room,” she ordered. “I want to speak alone with our guest.”
“Mommy, no! Mommy!”
“I’ll come find you after I’m done. Don’t you want Mommy to protect you from the scary lady?”
The attendant picked up the weeping child, and Beth struggled again. No, she wanted to scream, don’t you take my daughter from me! But she could no longer speak, could no longer force her tongue to shape the words and tell Caroline she was her mother, not this monster who had stolen her away simply to spite her. Not this monster who would hurt her unspeakably once Beth was gone and enjoy every moment of it. Not this monster, Annalise.
She had to protect her daughter. But how? Sweat beaded on her upper lip as she struggled to speak, to shout and scream, but the attendant never even looked at her as he carried the girl away. The lone wheeze that whined out of her throat went unanswered, and the door latched shut to leave the two women alone in the room.
Beth couldn’t lose here. She couldn’t give up. She reached within for her wolf, begging for help and for strength she could get nowhere else, but it was futile. Her wolf was dying with her, barely conscious.
Betrayed. Broken. There was nothing she could do anymore for her little girl. Her eyes closed, lashes and cheeks wet with all the tears that carried her every agony.
When Beth opened her eyes again, the other woman was grinning. “Well, now that that’s out of the way, we can finally talk. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of our heart-to-hearts, hasn’t it? We shouldn’t be like that. Sisters should stick together.”
Sisters. Sisters. What kind of sisters were they, now that Anna had betrayed her so unforgivably, so cruelly? What kind of sisters were they, now that Beth was dying in front of her and all Anna did was gloat and taunt?
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. To be honest, I like being on this side of it. I was always the one crying to you, remember? But now, I can be the big sister. And all I have to do is pat your head and lie to you that everything’s going to be all right. By the way, it’s not going to be. Not for you, anyway.”
When had she become so cruel? When had she become so carelessly vicious? Or if she had always been this way, how had Beth never seen it before?
“Why are you looking at me like that?” The woman lowered herself into the bedside chair with a contented sigh. “If you’re about to say something stupid like how you hate me, spare me the boredom. It’s not worth anything to be hated by someone like you. Maybe you should have put up a better fight?”
Beth glared. It was all she could do now, but she imagined picking her sister up and hurling her to the ground over and over again, imagined shaking her until she wept and begged for mercy.
“You’ll give yourself ulcers if you keep giving me that stink eye. What are you blaming me for, anyway? It’s your own fault you’re like this. Or are you going to cry about how you’ve been done wrong, and how I’m terrible, and ask how someone could do something like this to their own sister.”
Anna wiped her knuckle under each eye in a mocking gesture, blinking away imaginary tears. “So sad. You’re right, it’s pretty terrible. And I’d feel sorry for you if you hadn’t walked right into it.”
She leaned forward, resting her crossed forearms on the covers with an ear-to-ear smile. “Listen. Stupid people pay for their mistakes. And that’s you. I mean, if you really look at it, this was all your doing from the beginning anyway. You were the one who married him. I just went along with it - even helped you two elope. And did I force you? Did I twist your arm behind your back and make you do it? I think not. So if you’re going to blame anyone, blame yourself. You were the one who couldn't keep him. Even after it turned out he was your fated mate! Seriously...how pathetic do you have to be that you can’t even make your fated mate fall in love with you.”
She was lying. She was lying and enjoying every second. How could she look her in the eye and let those ugly words drizzle out of her mouth? Beth closed her eyes, too sickened to look any longer at the younger sister she had given up everything for. Why hadn’t she been content with that? What had made her so bloodthirsty that she had to come after Beth for even more?
They had grown up together. No, that wasn’t right. Beth had all but raised her, taught her how to play, to learn, how to read and write and dress herself. She had been there for her first shift, talked her through the terrifying transformation all through the night, then hugged her and told her how proud of her she was. She had been there for all of it, everything, saving her from every hardship and taking whatever blow came her way.
And when their father told them one day he had arranged mates for both his daughters, ordering Beth to marry into a powerful family while assigning his younger daughter to marry into the weakest wolf clan of all, when she had come weeping to Beth that their father must hate her and want to humiliate her and had always favored Beth over her, Beth had saved her from that, too.
And it had been Matt. Matt. He was the one her sister had been promised to, and he was the man who had been Beth’s undoing in the end. If she had known then what she knew now, she would never have gone to find Matt and elope with him, breaking off all ties to the pack to spare her sister.
It didn’t even matter that in a terrible, ironic stroke of fate, they had locked eyes and realized they were each other’s fated mates all along. Their paths crossing like this, inexplicably, unbelievably - oh! And it didn’t matter, either, that she had been blissfully happy and grateful for a precious little while, giving thanks to the Moon Goddess every day for this rare and marvelous gift. She had wept so many tears of joy that her life of sacrifice had been rewarded at last in the most unlikely of ways.
But none of that mattered.
Because in the end, Matt had betrayed her, too. Fated mates? Fated mates? What did that even mean when he had been unfaithful all along and slept with her sister, and then banished Beth from the pack, too, after stealing away their daughter?
Their daughter. Their little girl. Their little girl who didn’t even know who her real mother was - their little girl who hated her.
She had given so much of herself to him, to them all. She had thrown everything away if it had meant she could make her loved ones happy, had carved everything out of herself that she could give. And she had thought the Moon Goddess had rewarded her with the greatest, rarest gift in the world - her fated mate, a beautiful daughter, a family to love and cherish to the end of her days.
But it had all been a lie. Hot tears squeezed out of the corner of her eyes, mingling with the cold sweat dowsing her face. It had all been lies, and pain, and suffering, and now - this.
“Aw, you look so sad,” her sister crooned. “You shouldn’t. You’re an ugly crier, and you’re already in poor shape as it is -”
The bedroom door opened, and a somber-looking man stepped in. Instantly, Anna transformed - the mocking, smug expression vanished, replaced by a face sculpted from the prettiest grief and mourning. Her hands that had been twirling her hair so carelessly a second ago now shook and trembled, and her cheeks were already wet with tears as she turned in her chair.
“Matt,” she sobbed. “She’s leaving us. Why is this happening? What did we do to deserve this? Matt, I can’t lose her. She’s all I’ve got. I can’t…”
But he paid her no heed. When he crossed the room in half a dozen swift strides, it wasn’t to gather her up in his arms and assure her they had done no wrong. Instead, he reached for Beth, pushing her hair back from her forehead and staring down at her emaciated form in horror, in grief - and with regret so violent and broken it almost took physical shape between them.
“Give us a minute,” he said. “I need to be alone with Beth.”
“What - but Matt -”
“I need to be alone with her.”
If she still possessed the strength to feel anything but bitter defeat, Beth would have laughed at the poorly-hidden outrage on Anna’s face. But none of it mattered anymore anyway. Beth had lost. What was one glimmer of false victory at the very end? There was no satisfaction to be found even as Anna stalked out of the room, shoulders shaking in silent fury. She threw one last vile look behind her before half-slamming the door.
For a long moment, Matt remained motionless and stared at her in silence. But she ignored him, looking away at the wall and seeing nothing. And when at last he sat on the bed next to her, she gave no sign at all that she had noticed.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize until now. You were so good to me. We were happy. And I threw it away.”
He had. He had, again and again and again.
“I can’t believe I did this to you. I’m so sorry, Beth. I’m so sorry. Forgive me. Forgive me and come back to me, I’m so sorry…”
She almost retched when he climbed into the bed and curled around her through the covers, nuzzling her neck. And what? He had the nerve to cry? After everything he had done to her, after every knife he had stabbed in her back, after betraying her in the worst ways imaginable - he regretted it?
She wished she could hurl him away and rip his disgusting hands off of her, these same hands that had stolen away her daughter and these same hands he had used to make love to her sister behind her back. But she no longer had the strength. They had taken it all from her. Everything.
“Please, Beth. Pull through. I’ll make this right. I’ll fix everything. I was wrong, I love you, I love you…You’re my fated mate. There will never be anyone like you again.”
What a hypocrite. Who was it that had said to her that being fated to each other meant nothing? Who was it that had said their mate bond was useless and meant nothing to him, that she was replaceable and he had already used up everything she could offer him?
As he prayed over her and begged her to come back to him, she let her mind drift away at last into the darkness. She could hold on no longer, not even for her precious daughter. Her time was up.
“Beth...Beth, don’t leave me. Don’t leave me…”
Oh, Moon Goddess, she prayed. Your gift killed me. Your gift made my life hell. Do you see this?
“Beth? Beth, oh Goddess, don’t take her from me. Not yet. Not yet -”
If I could do it all over again, if I had another chance to make this right, if I could ask you for one thing only -
“Beth? Beth! Beth, look at me!”
Take your gift back.
“Open your eyes, Beth! Please!”
I never want a mate again.