A Wolf’s Claim
The Holiday Ball, Book 1
by Marie Mason
[ Paranormal Christmas Romance, MF ]
Hosting the annual Holiday Ball was Hayden Barringer’s first official act as the new alpha. He’d avoided the event in years past, knowing he wasn’t ready for a mate. One look at the curvy witch standing on the sidelines had his wolf howling into the snowy night. The wolf was more than ready for his mate.
Amber stood in nervous anticipation at the back of the spacious room. The Holiday Ball was in full swing. In another time elegant and demur ladies would have floated across the marble floor, waltzing in the arms of the man they had favored for the evening.
Instead, the room was filled with half-naked bodies practically having sex on the dance floor. But tonight’s Holiday Ball was just as grand as any that had been held at the turn of the century. It was an annual event thrown by wolf shifters just before Christmas. The alphas in the area took turns playing host, much as she imagined landowners had done in days gone by. The dances were eerily similar in purpose—to bring together eligible males and females. Every type of supernatural was represented. Witches, demons, shifters, vampires, incubi. Even ghosts. And of course, humans. A surprising amount of supernaturals found their mate in the human realm.
And this year, just like the last nine, Amber was one of those eligible women. A witch. Fate favored witches as mates for wolves, so the alphas made sure to invite all the single witches.
She clenched her fists, fighting the urge to turn and walk away. Hell, run away. Run away just as fast as her chunky legs would carry her. She’d managed to skip out on the last several years, but this year her grandmother had insisted. She’d pulled the matriarch card and ordered all the single witches of the coven to attend.
Amber didn’t like being told what to do. Her mother must have sensed her mood from across the room because she quickly excused herself from the group of witches she’d been talking to for the last half hour or so. Her grandmother followed her as she worked her way back to Amber through the decked out partygoers.
The room was just as beautiful as its occupants. Decorations of blue, silver, and white turned the house into a fairy-tale Christmas wonderland. Even the twenty-foot blue spruce blended-in with the color scheme, its branch turned a wintery white. She knew the lights on the tall fir depended more on fairy magic than electricity.
Despite her unhappy demeanor, most of the guests were enjoying themselves—and hoping to find their special someone. The yearly party was Match.com on steroids.
It made sense to hold such a party at Christmas, the most magical time of the year. A time of year when children’s beliefs in the impossible filled the air with positive energy. The party was a feast for the incubi attending. The sexual energy ran high since not all supernaturals were looking for their true-mates. They were just looking for a fast hook-up and giving off enough pheromones to choke a horse.
She knew she was being a bitchy witch because so far there hadn’t been any sign of a true-mate on her witchy radar. Not so much as a blip. Well, except for the demon who had cornered her early asking for an, um, adjustment to his heat level.
She started when a low growl sounded behind her. Thinking someone had discovered her oasis in the shadows, she quickly turned and looked over her shoulder. Nope. No one was there. Shaking her head at her nervousness, she turned back to the party, wishing that she’d thought to grab a flute of champagne and maybe an hors d’oeuvres or two before hiding out.
She studied her mother and grandmother as they neared, wondering for the umpteenth time why she couldn’t have taken after that side of the family. Both of them were tall and slender. She, however, was curvy, a genetic gift from the human women on her father’s side. Her hips and breasts were large, but she had a waist that should have been on a woman smaller than herself. She thought she looked like an overdrawn cartoon character and tried to hide the generous curves whenever she could. The dress she had on tonight complemented her curves, unlike the plain, oversized shirts and sweaters she favored. It drove her mother crazy that she didn’t flaunt her assets in order to attract a man.
Her mother and her grandmother were always telling her how beautiful she was and how she had a figure that men would die for. She didn’t believe them. Why should she? There certainly hadn’t been any men knocking down her doors in recent years. She’d dated in high school and college, but since she’d returned home to help in her mother’s shop, no one had even suggested meeting for coffee at McDonald’s for heaven’s sake.
This time she thought she heard a murmur of approval resonate from the shadows around her and shivered.
“Why are you hiding back here in the shadows, Amber Marie Jones.”
Amber always smiled when her mother used her full name. As a little girl, the three names had let her know she was in trouble and usually provided enough time for her throw up a cloaking spell before her mother found her. The spell would shield her for a while, but then she’d have to face the music. Unlike human teenagers who had their phone privileges revoked, a young witch was usually forbidden to use her magic.
To Amber, being able to use her magic was as essential as breathing.
“I’m not hiding, Mother. I’m watching.”
“Well, you need to watch from somewhere else.”
“Hush, Maggie,” her grandmother scolded her mother, putting a comforting arm around Amber’s shoulders. If she hadn’t been so curvy, she would have felt small around these two women. They were that tall. Or she was that short. Guess it was all a matter of perspective.
“Exactly, my dear.” Her grandmother gave her a wink and Amber realized the other woman had read her thoughts. That usually didn’t happen since her grandmother had taught her at an early age how to avoid being read by any supernatural with that ability. Of course, her grandmother could easily slip past those shields when her mind overflowed with emotions, like now.
As usual, her mother ignored her grandmother. “Really, Amber, you need to be out mingling. How else are you going to know if your mate is here or not?”
Amber sighed. It was the same story year after year. “If I’m fated to have a mate, he’ll find me no matter what I do at this damn party.”
“Watch your language, young lady. No one likes a potty mouth.”
She rolled her eyes. Her mother should hear her when she was working on a spell and accidentally set things on fire. But the mate thing wasn’t happening, no matter how prim and proper she acted. She’d come to the realization that having a mate was not her destiny. Some witches weren’t meant to mate. Or some lost their mates too soon.
Like her grandmother and mother. A mischievous spark lit up her eyes. Technically, both women were single. Who was to say fate didn’t have another mate in store for them? “You and Grams are the ones who need to be out mingling. You’re both single, too, you know.”
“What?” That brought her mother’s attention back from scanning the crowd as if she could see which man was meant for Amber. That wasn’t such a far-reaching concept. Her grandmother could read minds—well, she could read emotions and held a doctorate in psychology, so when she mixed the two skills together, it was kind of like being able to read minds.
Her mother could see things. Glimpses of the past and present. And sometimes the future. She gave readings in the back of her shop—minus the crystal ball. Amber’s talent was more elemental. She could bring dying plants back to life with just a touch, mix potions for sickness of both the body and soul and call forth wind and fire.
“You’re single, Mother.” She didn’t want to cause her mother any sadness by mentioning that fact. Her father had passed away three years ago. Amber had crystal clear memories of her father laughing and playing with her. And kissing her mother. They had always been touching and kissing. She’d felt the love between her parents and wished with all her heart to have that some day. But she also knew her mother was lonely at times and deserved another chance at happiness. She’d give her blessing if her mother found someone else. Seeing the look on her grandmother’s face, she knew the older woman would as well.
Amber ran her damp palms along the length of her dress. It was a dark blue, appearing black in the shadows. Not a very festive color, but the slightly stiff texture of the satiny material made it fall from the cinched waist down around her hips and thighs which reminded her of a Christmas bell.
That thought pulled her attention to the large windows on the other side of the room. It was snowing heavily outside. Christmas was certainly upon them, and for one brief moment, she wished this one would be different. That fate would send her a mate to love.
Seeing the faces of the beautiful women in the crowd and hearing the muted laughter of the drop dead gorgeous males as they flirted and strutted, she knew this year’s ball wouldn’t be any different.
The words whispered through her mind and she remembered the sounds from earlier. Oh, great, she was going bonkers.
Her mother cut her off before she could finish her curse. “Language, dear. Language.”
“Did you just…?” Amber narrowed her eyes at her grandmother. She’d never spoken to Amber in her mind before. She didn’t even think it was possible.
“Did I what, dear?” The same large, blue eyes she saw in the mirror every day looked back at her. Only now, her grandmother’s were wide with innocence. She snorted. Her grandmother hadn’t been innocent in decades.
“Here, you look like you need this.” Her grandmother fluttered her hand to gain the attention of a passing server and grabbed a flute of champagne and handed it to her.
Amber took it eagerly. “Never mind,” she mumbled. Throwing back her head, she swallowed the sparkling liquid in one gulp.
“Amber, you are no longer in college, and that is not a shot of tequila you’re drinking.”
Amber felt the warmth of the champagne immediately and was able to ignore her mother’s second—or was it the third? —scold of the evening.
“You know she didn’t indulge in college, Maggie. She should have, but she’s always been a good little witch, haven’t you, Amber?”
This time there was no doubting the deep masculine chuckle that sounded in Amber’s head as if contradicting her grandmother’s words. Okay, she thought, that was just too spooky, even for a witch. She should not be hearing—no having someone talking to her—in her head.
And, she had been a good witch she huffed silently.
Oh, I know you’re good, baby. And you’re all mine.
She glanced around to see if anyone was standing close enough to throw their voice, doing some same strange ventriloquist act. But how would they know what she’d been thinking?
“Okay, I need to go to the restroom.” She spoke into space since her mother and grandmother had already turned away, once again engaged in conversation with other witches.
Even though she knew it was a bad idea, she grabbed another flute of champagne and downed it just as quickly as she had the first. Maybe that would end the bizarre conversation taking place in her head.
Hayden Barringer chuckled from the balcony overlooking the large room being used for the party. This was his first official act as pack alpha—hosting the annual holiday mate party. Oh, they called it The Holiday Ball, but everyone knew the real purpose. Bring together as many eligible males and females as possible and hope for a few true-matings to take place.
His father had retired early this month and as first-born, he had inherited the position. By his side stood his two younger brothers, Gunner and Lucas. Thankfully, they’d had no desire to run the pack. Even though he was first born, they, or any male of the pack could challenge him for leadership. It was rare that a fight for dominance occurred when an alpha passed the reins to a son, but it was not unheard of.
“What’s so funny?” Lucas the youngest of the trio turned and looked at him. They stood on the balcony overlooking the room where most of the parties’ guests were mingling and dancing. They were all dressed in dark blue tuxedos. The only difference was the color of their bowties. Hayden wore red, Lucas green, and Gunner’s matched his tux. They were the Barringer brothers, a force to be reckoned with.
“My mate.” Hayden took a drink of his champagne. It was imported from France, nothing but the best for the holiday party. Knowing what a special occasion this was turning out to be, he was glad he’d decided to go ahead with the formality of the party. He’d have been just as comfortable throwing a barbecue with a side of beef and a couple of dozen kegs of cold beer, even if it was in the middle of winter.
“My mate amuses me.” He chuckled again as his brother finally caught on.
“Are you trying to tell us your mate is here?”
“Yep.” He took another drink of champagne, knowing the alcohol wouldn’t affect his senses, or his ability to please his mate tonight.
“Which one?” Lucas leaned over the balcony in order to see all of the occupants in the room.
“The pretty one in the corner.” He pointed to the furthest corner of the room where she once again stood all alone in the shadows, the two women who had been with her moving away.
“Narrow it down, bro. There’s a lot of beautiful woman here tonight.”
“The curvy one in the midnight blue dress.” This time Gunner spoke. Hayden wasn’t surprised his brother knew exactly which woman Hayden meant. Gunner’s intuition was legendary in the pack. But Hayden was worried about his brother. As enforcer for the Council of Elders, he had to deal with the dregs of the werewolves’ society. Not all wolves were appreciative of the gifts they had been given. In fact, because of those gifts, they had the tendency to be worse than their human counterparts, giving in easily to the corruption of power and strength that were a natural part of them. Gunner had to deal with that part of the supernatural world. He’d spent the last three months tracking down a rogue wolf who had murdered his family and several members of his pack when they had tried to stop him.
Gunner stood beside him, scarred in both body and soul. And Hayden didn’t know how to fix him. He was alpha of his pack and one of his own was hurting. His own brother for fuck’s sake, and he had no idea how to help him.
Hayden pressed a hand to his shoulder. A month ago, Gunner wouldn’t have allowed the touch. Progress, Hayden thought. Progress.
“Later.” Gunner spoke. “Take care of your mate.” He turned and walked away before Hayden could stop him.
Lucas and Hayden watched as Gunner left. Lucas sighed heavily. “Will he get better?”
“Yes. In time. Now, tell me what you think of my mate.”
His younger brother turned his attention back to the crowd. “I still don’t…oh, yeah, I see her. Man, she’s built like a brick—”
The low growl made Lucas grin. “Sorry.”
Hayden patted the hard ridge of muscle beneath Lucas’s suit. His brother might be younger, but he was just as broad and strong as his two older brothers.
Hayden put down his empty glass. “It’s time for me to go hunting.”
“Mother, what did you do?” Maggie Jones watched as her daughter walked to the restroom. Or at least tried to. Every third step or so, she would stop as if she was trying to regain her balance. Which she probably was. Maggie read her daughter’s aura and saw the blue sparkles that surrounded her.
She narrowed her eyes as she looked at her mother. No one would ever guess the woman with the bright blue eyes was old enough to be the matriarch of the witches’ coven. The only outward sign of her age was her silver-gray hair. If she cast a spell and put some color back in her hair, she wouldn’t look a day over thirty.
Patting her own still reddish brown locks, Maggie wondered if her mother chose to go silver because of her. Their features were similar and witches didn’t age like humans. If Ruth did choose to dye her hair, they would easily pass for sisters.
While Amber shared their features—no one could ever doubt she was a Jones witch, what with her bright blue eyes—she had too much of her father in her to look identical to the two other women. Which was a good thing. Amber needed her own identity. Maggie sighed as she watched her daughter carefully maneuver herself through the crowd. She knew her daughter disliked the curves that nature had bestowed upon her and refused to see the beauty in them. She and her husband had done everything they could to instill confidence in their young daughter. They had succeeded. Mostly. Except where men were concerned.
“You were never meant to be the one to convince her.”
“Would you stop that!” Despite knowing how to block mind reading from most supernaturals, Ruth could read Maggie’s mind when she was emotionally upset no matter how many shields she had in place. “And you’re just trying to change the subject. What did you put in Amber’s drink?”
She’d seen the slight wave of her mother’s hand over the champagne flute before she’d taken it from the tray and handed it to Amber, but had thought nothing of it at the time. Not every hand gesture by a witch was a potential act of magic. But after seeing Amber making her way through the crowd on less than steady legs…Her mother was mischievous. And slightly devious. She hadn’t risen to the head of the coven by being a good witch all of the time.
Ruth shrugged her shoulders and took a sip of the champagne in her hand, grimacing slightly. It had warmed considerably. She blew across the top of the glass, chilling the liquid. Just a little trick she had picked up over the years. “I might have added a little pixie dust to her drink. That’s all.” Pixie dust had a tendency to decrease one’s sexual inhibitions. And play havoc with a witch’s intuition. Amber wouldn’t know the wolf was her mate until it was all over but the wedding.
“Her mate is here, Maggie. Did you want her to turn broom and run? Cause that was what she was about to do.”
Ruth tried not to laugh as her daughter sputtered, trying to answer back. That had taken the wind right out of her sails.
“Yes, dear. A mate. Her mate.”
A beautiful smile spread across Maggie’s face and she clapped in excitement. “Which one? Where is he?” Her head whipped around, trying to find Amber’s future husband.
There was so much sexual tension in the room, unless she had a flash of insight, Maggie wouldn’t be able to tell which male was meant for Amber. Until they mated. Ruth’s gaze was drawn to the balcony hidden in the shadows above the room. A secret smile curved her lips. If she wasn’t mistaken, Christmas was going to be a magical time for two Jones’ witches.
“Momma, you have to tell me.”
“I believe that is him right there.” Both women turned to see the tall, muscular man, making his way smoothly, but insistently, through the crowd. Sensing the commanding presence, the bodies parted as he approached. “On the hunt, if I’m not mistaken.”