I raced through the forest undergrowth, leaves whipping my legs and body as I fought to gain some distance between me and my pursuer. My heart raced a thousand beats per second, and I felt the familiar tingle in my fingers and teeth as they stretched and warped from their human form, becoming longer, sharper, stronger.
Behind me, footsteps pounded into the earth. He was close, so I put on a burst of speed and oxygen screamed into my lungs. It earned me a few seconds of breathing room. I slowed, looking over my shoulder at the surrounding woods, hoping my partners were coming to help, but all I saw was an enormous figure pumping his arms as he ran at me.
He leapt, covering an inhuman distance before landing just behind me. Teeth sharp as my own glinted in the late afternoon sun, and his eyes glowed with the telltale yellow of a werewolf. His presence felt dominating, suffocating. I crouched, fangs bared and claws held out, but he knocked my arms aside and slammed into me with the force of a punching bag full of bricks. I fell into a controlled roll, rocks and twigs stabbing into my skin, then was on my feet in time to meet an onslaught of blows. He swiped at my belly and my neck, but I wove around his strikes, stuttering back to gain my footing.
He darted forward, trying to get me in a bear hug, but I slammed my palms down on his shoulders and flipped over to land behind him. He turned slowly, eyeing me with disapproval.
Ya, ya, you caught me; I thought. If he’d just give me a damn minute, Anna and Noah could catch up to help.
But of course, he wouldn’t wait. His legs bent, lowering him into a light-footed fighting stance.
Nearby, something flashed through the forest, trying to get behind my attacker. But the momentary distraction gave him the opening he needed, and he darted in. His shoulder connected with my stomach, and after a massive shove, I went flying. My back hit a branch hard midair, and I fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, coughing and gasping.
“Danny! Are you okay?”
I looked up at Anna, my best friend of seven years. Her dark eyes worried, and full lips — which I always envied — were slightly parted as she panted from her run. Her long black hair was tied back, but a few stands tickled against her copper skin and she brushed at them with annoyance. She reached out and pulled me up with ease, much stronger than what her teensy frame suggested was possible.
I grunted in pain. Getting the wind knocked out of you sucked, but my werewolf healing was already fixing it. The painful ache in my back was a bigger problem. I knew from experience it was a cracked rib. Those took much longer to heal.
A second face appeared, this time Noah, my other bestie. He already looked like he was beating himself up for not getting there in time, and I gave him a reassuring smile. He hovered as Anna helped me up, his teeth and eyes fading to a normal human appearance. Once satisfied I would not fall over, he started brushing the dirt and leaves from me.
“What the hell was that?” We all tensed and turned to face the attacker, also known as Terrance, my asshole stepfather.
Terrance was in his 80s, but he didn’t look a day over 30 normally. Today he looked older thanks to the short dark hair plastered to his forehead, and the scowl so deep it gave him wrinkles between his eyebrows and around his mouth. Behind the salt and pepper scruff on his chin, I saw his jaw muscles clenched tight.
“You lost your focus again!” The yellow in his eyes disappeared, but his glare was still ferocious, and I lowered my eyes in submission.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
He crossed tanned arms over a solid chest. “Sorry won’t cut it. Do you think an enemy will give you a break if you get distracted? A split second is all it takes to make the difference between your survival and being dead.”
He ran a hand over his beard and sighed. “The entire time you kept looking for Anna and Noah. Keeping track of your allies is good, but you do this every damn time. If your allies aren’t there to help, you finish the fight yourself. Am I clear?”
I thought about snapping at him, complaining that he was being unfair. Expecting a young, inexperienced werewolf to hold off the best fighter in the Pack was beyond ridiculous, and he knew it.
I must have let some of my frustration show, because Terrance flashed his teeth at me. I ducked my head further, simmering with resentment. Sure, I should have kept my focus. Even if I couldn’t win on my own – although he thought I somehow could – I should’ve at least held him off until Anna and Noah got into position. But even knowing that, his expectations were too high! And he didn’t have to throw me into a tree, dammit!
“I asked if I made myself clear,” he repeated.
I forgot I hadn’t answered. “Yes, Terrance,” I said quickly, knowing that giving him sass right now would earn me a punishment.
Inside, I promised cruel and unusual revenge. Sabotage was the best way to deal with someone stronger than you. Terrance still didn’t know I was the one stealing his socks. No matter how often he bought more socks to restore the Great Balance of the Sock Drawer, it didn’t take long for him to find some missing. It drove him nuts and relieved my stress.
Satisfied that his scolding was effective, Terrance moved onto the other two. “Anna, you did well, but you keep trying to rely on stealth in fights. You need to differentiate between a time to stalk your prey and when it’s time to let your teeth out. Noah, your teamwork needs to improve. Remember to stay calm and always keep one eye on what your Packmates are doing.”
I made a face behind him while Anna and Noah each muttered affirmatives, just barely going blank, just as Terrance turned back to me.
“You aren’t done inventory at the clubhouse.” He crossed his arms, scowling.
“I was packing and stuff. I just did inventory two weeks ago, can’t I do it when I get back?”
“No, you can’t do it when you get back. I asked you to finish it yesterday, and you put it off again, sulking around the house and complaining about how stressed you were. It’s hard on your mother. Get it done by the end of today.”
The ‘or else’ was implied. Without waiting for a response, Terrance turned and stalked off into the forest, towards the golf course he owned and managed for the Pack. I stuck my tongue out at him, not caring how immature it was.
Noah’s eyes widened, and he kicked my heel, checking to make sure my stepfather didn’t catch it. The goofball.
He’d always been timid, even when I’d first moved here ten years ago. While Anna and I got more ballsy as we aged, sweet Noah remained sensitive and purehearted as a prince. He kind of looked like one, too. With fair, delicate skin and shy hazel eyes, Noah made anyone who stayed around him for five minutes want to protect him. Despite being a scary werewolf, the guy couldn’t hurt a fly.
Confident Terrance was out of earshot, I collapsed to the ground and sighed. “What a blowhard,” I said, and Anna rewarded me with a snort of laughter, but Noah cast a worried glance into the trees.
“He’s gone,” I said, grabbing a stick and doodling in the ground. “So now we can talk behind his back about what a dick he is.”
“My favourite pastime,” Anna said, grinning wickedly.
My sister-not-of-blood Anna enjoyed fighting back against the Pack’s strict hierarchy whenever she could. Not straight on, of course – that was suicide – but Anna could be brutal in her methods. Some years back, we three found out about a human in town who hit his kid. I voted to break in like masked robbers and beat the living shit out of him. Noah insisted that breaking in was too risky, so Anna somehow dug up the fact that he was skimming money from one of the Pack businesses. She turned that over to Terrance, and the human disappeared like magic. So ya, Anna would take down her enemies without a moment’s hesitation. It takes a lot to get on her shit list; she takes life way too seriously, but once you ‘re on it, consider yourself done.
Between her, Noah, and me, we were the perfect trio, balancing each other out with our individual strengths and weaknesses. And right now, Noah was leaning on his strength of an angel who played the devil’s advocate.
He gave us both looks of disapproval. “Can we not complain about our evil leaders today?” he groaned. “We did screw up.”
“Ya, but he’s always so rude about it,” I protested. “He’s the fucking Pack Second! He’s faster and stronger than us, and not even Gloria can match him in a fight. Like we stand a chance. Why can’t we train with someone else for once? And why can’t he just let me rest for a few days? It’s not like I’ll suddenly discover hidden ninja skills just days before the interview. I’m only stripping naked in front of strangers, not fighting to the death.”
Noah shrugged and took the stick from my hand, adding to the crude wolf drawing I’d started. “Maybe he wants to make us stronger?”
I rolled my eyes. “Dude, the whole ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is bullshit. Gord didn’t go through this.”
“Gordon has a lot more self-control than you do,” Anna pointed out.
I wrinkled my nose at her logic.
“Hey. Aren’t you supposed to be on my side?” I asked.
“I mean, he isn’t as fast as you,” she continued, ignoring my betrayed expression. “You’re probably on the same strength level too.”
I sighed. “Whatever. You know, I can forgive Terrance for going hard on us in fights, but why does he still make me do inventory? I swear, it’s the most boring job on the planet. Saturday is the biggest day of my life; God forbid I take a few days to relax. No, sorting golf balls is more important.”
“Yup, dick move,” Anna agreed. “Nothing unusual for our fearless leaders though.”
That last part sounded bitter, and I glanced at her with concern.
Noah licked his lips and checked the surrounding forest. “Stop talking like that,” he said, his voice lowered. “Someone will hear you one day, and then we’ll all be in trouble. Gloria won’t let us off easy, even if we are still young.”
Anna gave him a patronizing stare. “Twenty-three is not young.”
“It is if you’re a werewolf,” he insisted.
She sighed and rolled to her feet. “Whatever. I have stuff to do. See you guys later.”
My curiosity perked up. “What kind of stuff?”
She gave a crooked smile, looking smug. “Yours truly has permission to come on Friday.”
I leaped to my feet and squeezed my friend, stopping when my sore rib protested. The damn thing probably wouldn’t fully heal until tomorrow. Terrance, the rat bastard, probably calculated exactly the amount of force he’d need to give me such an injury. He was good; I had to give him that. Still, I wanted to kick him in the balls.
Noah stood too and made a sound of jealousy. “Lucky! How did you pull that off?”
Anna shrugged. “Part of my job,” she said, her gaze losing focus.
I gave her a questioning look. “No offense, Anna, but you’re a librarian. Humans will be there and the whole thing is live on tv, so why do you even want to come? Actually, why did Gloria agree to it?”
She looked like she was going to say something, but changed her mind. “We have our reasons,” she said with a shrug.
I knew that stubborn expression. It meant the conversation was over. Without even saying goodbye, Anna strode off on her own through the bush.
I blinked at her retreating figure. “Uh, did I say something wrong?”
Noah bit his lip and brushed his light brown flopping hair away from his face. “I don’t know. She’s been weird this past year.”
“Ya,” I said, rubbing my arms. “I thought she’d gotten over her depression from last year, but… let’s keep an eye out over the next while. Maybe she’s just stressed out over the big reveal.”
“Don’t worry, you can count on me,” Noah said, lifting his chin and grinning.
I snorted, resisting the urge to brush his hair back like old days. We weren’t a couple anymore, but it was easy to fall back into old habits. He was too adorable.
“So,” I said brightly, “you’re coming to help me, right? With inventory, I mean.”
The look of horror on his face was priceless. “Um, I can’t. I’m supposed to—”
“Hey, remember last month when you were hooking up with that human girl and your dad got home early, and I had to pretend that it was me when he asked who it was later?”
His face turned a fascinating shade of magenta. “I made it up to you,” he protested.
“Well, you can make it up to me even more by helping tonight. It won’t take long if there’s two of us doing it,” I said, and gave him puppy dog eyes. “Pleeeease Noah?”.
He squirmed and sighed. “Fine.”
I linked our arms and pulled him along, back to the clubhouse, chatting delightfully about the work left to do.
I was up to my elbows in brand name sports socks when Gloria and Terrance walked through the main clubhouse entrance. Noah and I had only been working for an hour, but the disruption was a welcome break. I thought my eyes were starting to cross from counting.
Gloria entered first, of course. Dressed for business in a black suit, her dark hair in fine braids tied with beads that clacked as she walked. Terrance was also dressed up for a change, wearing loose tan slacks, a white dress shirt, and an actual jacket. I had never seen him so formal.
If Terrance’s get-up made me stare, the next wolf who walked in made my jaw drop. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a starched black three-piece suit perfectly tailored to his larger frame. He was overdressed but carried himself with the harnessed power of a thoroughbred who knew his worth. It was hard not to stare.
Inigo Briggs, Second to the Alpha presiding over the Western Territories. He wasn’t technically an Alpha, but compared to him, even Gloria seemed like a pup playing predator. I gave the humans who entered next a quick scan with my eyes and nose. I’d never seen Hunters in person before. Inevitably, my eyes returned to Inigo, his presence demanding attention.
He was attractive, maybe even sexy, if you were into ‘cold and aloof’. I remembered he was supposed to be about my age, but his intense brown eyes told a different story. They reminded me of Mom’s eyes. Not in color or shape, but in expression. Like he’d seen too much.
He listened politely as Terrance talked to him, nodding with attentive good manners. But even the most oblivious human could tell that his careful hair, his suit, and his polite manner were all a veneer; a fragile mask made of paper that the beast underneath could rip through at any moment.
He was the most powerful person I’d ever seen in my life.
Terrance nodded and grinned at something the stranger said, and my eyes narrowed. Anyone who could be buddy-buddy with Terrance made my asshole radar go off. Plus, he wore a full suit, for fuck’s sake. Even Terrance only wore slacks and a button-up shirt without a tie. Was he trying to show how unimportant and backwater we were?
I brushed back my messy shoulder-length blonde hair self-consciously. If I’d have known they were coming, I might have changed out of the dirty jeans and sweaty shirt I still wore from sparring in the forest.
Inigo looked up, and our eyes locked. Wholly intimidated, I dropped mine fast. He didn’t even have to use his dominance to ask for it. I just did.
“Danielle,” Gloria called, waving me over. “Mr. Briggs, this is Danielle Waters, the wolf from our Pack who will take part in the interview. Danielle, this is Inigo Briggs, Second of the Western Territories. His sister Monica is the Western Territories Alpha.”
All Packs had an Alpha of course, but like human governments, there was always someone higher up. Monica Briggs was not only the Alpha to over fifty wolves in her own Montana Pack, but presided over the half dozen Packs in the Western Territory. Hundreds of wolves total. And Inigo, her Second, was also her brother. What a crazy family.
Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain House Pack had twenty-six werewolves, and I was just about at the bottom of the totem pole. Our numbers were nothing compared to the Montana Pack, but still slightly more than the average. The town was an idyllic place for werewolves. Surrounded by thick forests and nestled just below the Rocky Mountains, it was far from major civilization yet easy to access. Werewolves founded it a hundred years ago, and over generations developed a strong group of human supporters who kept our secrets hidden, and our businesses running. Gloria reigned for over sixty years as an Alpha with an iron grip on her people.
Right now, she demonstrated that iron grip as she wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me in close, squeezing tight enough to almost make me yelp. A display to show how close we were, but also a warning. Behave, or else. I summoned a smile that felt plastic on my face, and she released me.
“Nice to meet you,” I said to Inigo like a well-mannered child.
“You as well,” he replied. His voice was low and calm, but I could feel the power hiding underneath. His eyes bore into me, assessing.
A few breaths passed, everyone waiting for someone else to speak, while Inigo just kept staring.
Shit, just take a picture or something, I thought, a smile still plastered on my face.
“Well, let’s go downstairs and get acquainted,” Gloria finally broke in. “Danielle, why don’t you come with us?”
The way she said it made it sound like she was doing me a favor, but I knew her invitation was only because of the unexpected interest Inigo took in me. I didn’t have the option to decline.
“Is she needed?” said a Hunter.
I breathed a sigh of relief when everyone diverted their attention to him. Gord told me ahead of time who this was. Lieutenant Colonel Simard, leader of the two Hunter bases in the Western Territories.
He appeared to be in his fifties, making him look the oldest out of everyone. Joke was on him, though: he was decades younger than both Gloria and Terrance. His salt and pepper hair, cut short for convenience, not style, and deep circles under his eyes made me think he was the kind of person who lived for his job. He had a lanky body but held himself with military posture, his back straight as a board and hands held neatly behind his back. There was something odd about him, and I couldn’t put my claw on it until I realized his face and body language were devoid of any emotion, almost perfectly neutral.
Unlike the werewolves, the Hunters dressed in military-style outfits: a simple yet neat uniform for Simard, and matching black cargo pants and t-shirts for his two henchmen. One was an ugly man, the other a bland-looking woman. I eyed the guns they carried in holsters strapped to their legs. They were told not to bring silver bullets, but you never knew.
Gloria took a firm grip on my shoulder and smiled at Lt. Colonel Simard with teeth. “Yes, I want her to join us,” she said, quickly establishing her dominance.
She took us to the back of the clubhouse and down a set of steps to the basement. This was the ‘secret base’ of our Pack, where Gloria and Terrance took care of werewolf business. I’d been down there once when Gord started working for Terrance, and found it pretty comfortable, actually. Soft, even lighting showed soothing cream walls, and a thick carpet muffled all sound. Gloria had installed an air cleaning system that eliminated any hints of damp or other unpleasant smells.
Inigo brought two werewolves with him, a blonde man and a woman with red hair tied in a sleek bun. I snuck glances at them now, watching them inspect their surroundings. The Hunters didn’t care about decor, and once we’d all filed into the basement’s large meeting room, they got right down to business.
“We brought contracts for you to look over, and highlighted talking points to discuss today,” said Lieutenant Colonel Simard.
I was used to being able to read people’s faces and body language – it was a huge part of wolf communication – but I just couldn’t get a read on this guy. Gloria didn’t seem to care, though. She accepted the stack of papers he offered with a grimace.
“Very well,” she said, and sat. Terrance took a place standing behind her.
With a brief glance, Gloria said, “Mr. Briggs, do you want to stay for this?”
“I do not,” he said.
His voice was quieter than I expected, but still caught attention.
“In that case, Danielle can show you and your Packmates around. I’ll send Terrance to find you later.”
Inigo seemed fine with it, and so did the other male wolf. But the female’s eyes raked over me with subtle disdain. I wanted to protest that I still had work to do, but Terrance gave me a death glare.
My throat felt like it would squeak, so I cleared it first. “Yes, ma’am. Uh, you can come with me,” I said to the werewolf guests.
One of the Hunter escorts, a man in his late thirties. Getting a better look at him now, I realized that he had the body of a Chippendale dancer, but the face of someone who got into a fight with the wrong end of a hammer. Intelligent eyes upgraded his scarred, haggard features, and I eyed him curiously as he held out his hand to me.
“James,” he said, his eyes bright with interest.
Not knowing what else to do, I shook it. “Danielle.”
“Captain Bell, I’d appreciate it if you stayed here.” Gloria said it politely, but her tone made it clear she didn’t want Hunters wandering around her territory.
James Bell gave an easygoing smile and backed off.
“Let’s go,” Inigo said. I flinched when he put his hand on my back, but he only pushed me along, leading the four of us out of the meeting.
“You have a restaurant here,” he said as if he were giving the tour and not me. “Let’s go there first.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, happy to let him decide. I could feel his powerful dominance, and he wasn’t even actively using it.
We went back up the stairs and I took them to the back kitchen fridge, stocked with pulled pork sandwiches, big bowls of beef stew and fresh cut fruit. On the way, I glimpsed Noah, still sorting socks, and felt a stab of guilt. Poor guy. I owed him one.
I handed everyone a sandwich each, and Inigo finally introduced his Packmates. He gestured first to the male werewolf, a handsome guy with blue eyes and long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail like a hipster.
“This is Lois. He’s doing the interview with you.”
I perked up and offered a smile. “Hello.”
He grinned, and my heart beat a little faster. That guy had definitely broken a lot of hearts.
“I’m glad we get to meet before the big event,” he said.
“Me too,” I told him, and meant it.
I may have been a little too enthusiastic, because Inigo crossed his arms and gave a grunt. “This is Babs,” he said, gesturing to the redhead.
His tone was flat now, and I couldn’t figure out if I’d done something wrong. When Babs outright sneered at me, I realized his foul mood was probably because of her.
I repeated my greeting cautiously.
Her hazel eyes glittered, and she tilted her head to observe me like a bug, the harsh kitchen light gleaming off her red hair. “So, you’re the little wolf they chose,” she said. “God, you’re practically a baby. Why did they pick someone like you? I told Monica she’d be better off choosing another wolf from our Pack.”
“The decision is made,” Inigo said. His tone was mild, but held a sliver of dominance that rose the hairs on my arms.
She lowered her eyes, but the sneer remained, and I decided to make every effort to avoid her in the future. I should warn Anna and Noah as well. The woman wasn’t on Inigo’s level, but she was definitely a powerhouse, and abrasive as hell.
“I’m going to use the restroom,” she said, tossing her sandwich onto the kitchen counter. She sauntered away with the air of someone who was too good for present company.
“Don’t mind her,” Lois said once she was gone. “She’s just pissed you took her place.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
Lois nodded conspiratorially and grabbed the sandwich Babs dropped, tearing into it with relish. “She was all set to do the interview with me until your Alpha insisted on including one of her people.”
“Lois,” Inigo warned.
The blonde wolf dropped his eyes in submission, but kept chewing and winked at me.
Inigo rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. The gesture looked out of place with his careful appearance. “Pack politics,” he told me. “Don’t worry about it.”
Duh. Politics in my own Pack was enough of a hassle I did my best to keep out of, so why would I risk getting my hide flayed by poking my nose into someone else’s? Then again, other people’s problems were much more fun to talk about than my own. I decided to ask around a bit later.
“Do you have any coffee?” Inigo asked out of the blue.
“We do,” I told him. Eager for something to do, I immediately rushed to a cupboard and pulled out the big can of coffee grounds and a filter. “I can make some right now if you want.”
He took the can from me, leaving me standing there with just the filter. Sniffing at it, he wrinkled his nose. “It’s not good coffee,” he said, and shook his head like a puppy denied its favourite treat. “Oh well. Not good coffee is still better than no coffee.”
Uh… what? Out of Inigo’s sight, Lois became very preoccupied with his sandwich, which I realized was just an excuse to hide a smile. Unaware of his Packmate’s amusement, Inigo kept inhaling the coffee grounds, and I was pretty sure that if he were in wolf form, his tail would wag happily. This was the Big Bad Second of the Western Territories? A smile of my own tickled at the corners of my mouth.
From the front of the clubhouse, someone yelped in panic. I froze.
“Noah!” I dropped the filters and took off toward the shop, heart pounding.
Around the corner in the main shop, I saw Babs had my friend trapped against the far wall, fingers wrapped around his throat as he desperately tried to squirm free. Her face was filled with cruel amusement, watching the little wolf struggle vainly against her. A red handprint marred his face already, and as I ran forward, Babs raised her arm for another strike.
My blood pounded in my ears and I threw myself at them before her hand could make contact a second time. Noah fell to the ground, coughing and gasping for breath. Babs landed on a set of golf clubs, scattering them as she regained her footing, teeth bared. My lips curled up on their own, and before I could stop it, a growl rumbled in my throat.
Giving Noah her back, she faced me instead.
“You dare challenge me?” she hissed, and raised a hand tipped with claws.
Shit, this was gonna hurt.
The Command came reinforced by dominant pressure so intense my lungs felt like they were being squeezed, and my legs went weak. Poor Noah, who just regained his footing, collapsed again.
Fortunately, Babs was also affected by Inigo’s dominance. She remained standing, but her shoulders hunched, and I could smell panic roll off her.
The dominance subsided, and suddenly I could breathe again. I glanced up to see Inigo standing in the shop entrance. He seemed to take up the entire space and his eyes glowed pure gold. Just a few steps behind, Lois glanced nervously between him and Babs, the stupid sandwich still in his hand.
Babs straightened. “Why are you making a fuss over some unimportant little wolf?”
“Get back downstairs,” Inigo told her.
Babs swallowed, then laughed lightly. “It was just a little joke,” she said, but we could hear the half-truth. Fluttering a wave at Noah, she said, “Goodbye, submissive little pup.”
I waited until she disappeared from sight and could no longer hear her footsteps before I let myself relax.
Inigo came forward and put a calming hand each on Noah and I, using his dominance to calm instead of suppress. His hand felt heavy on my shoulder, and I resisted the urge to slap it away.
“I advise you not to leave your lower Pack members alone while we’re here,” he told us. “Lois, with me.” He turned to the basement without so much as a glance behind.
My throat tightened with anger. That was it? One of his people bullied Noah for no reason, yet we got told off? Lois at least had the decency to give an apologetic glance before following his Second. The unfairness of it all left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, but there was nothing I could do.
“Fuck!” Noah yelled, in frustration. “I was fighting back, I swear. She’s just really strong is all.”
“I know, Noah. Strong and bat shit crazy. There must be a rule somewhere saying dominant werewolves have to be assholes.”
He nodded and snarled in the basement’s direction. It was long after the fact, but that was all someone in our position could do.
“Come on,” I told my friend. “Let’s get you home.”
He rejected the hand I offered, his pride obviously bruised, and left the clubhouse with me. The mark on his cheek faded, but his legs still wobbled from shock. I couldn’t wait until this was over with so that we wouldn’t have to see these monsters ever again.
The next day, I sat in the town’s oldest diner, stirring the dregs of my third milkshake. I’d arrived during the lunch rush, which meant the only free seat was at the counter. The constant presence of humans around me was getting on my nerves — and the constant pressure on my bladder was killing me — but I didn’t dare leave my seat. My prey was in sight, and there was no way I’d let him get away.
“Another milkshake, Danny?”
I looked up to see Grace, the sub manager, standing with arms crossed.
Rocky Mountain House was a quiet town nestled in the rolling hills of the Rocky Mountains, and two hours north of the city of Medavre. Even though only thirty of the town’s ten thousand residents were werewolves, the Pack owned most of the land, and many of the businesses too. Most of the humans lived in blissful ignorance about monsters who lived among them, but a few knew, and helped keep our secrets. Grace was one of them.
“No, thank you,” I replied.
“Hun, you know I like you,” she said. “But you need to finish that and get out of here before Bill comes in.”
I bit my lip. “Is he still mad about the squirrels? That was three years ago.”
Grace snorted. “Ya, well, Bill’s like an elephant: he never forgets. God, we found squirrel poop in his office for months after.”
My face flushed deep red. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to make more work for you guys.”
“Well, not that bad. The damage to his pride was worse than the damage to his office. And between you and me, he deserved it for what he said about Anna.”
I nodded. Bill was a local dick who liked to make underhanded, racist remarks. It didn’t seem to bother him — or more likely he was just so dumb it never occurred to him — that the girl he called a ‘smelly Paki’ could literally eat his face off.
“Anyway,” Grace continued, “if he sees you here, he’ll cause a scene, and we can’t afford to upset Gloria right now.”
“Gloria doesn’t pay that much attention to what I do,” I said.
She gave me a sidelong stare. “Not what I heard,” she said. She glanced around, then leaned in close. “Is it true the wolves are going public?”
I swallowed. Gloria didn’t care about dumb squirrel pranks, but she would definitely care if I confirmed the werewolves were going public.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, widening my eyes to appear innocent. I sucked at keeping secrets, but if I spilled this one, I’d be dead. Figuratively and literally.
Grace looked disappointed, but shrugged. “Keep your secrets, then. Well, hun, I’ve gotta get back to it. Just remember what I said.”
“I’ll leave soon,” I promised her.
Grace hit me with a look that called my bluff and left. I was telling the truth, though. My target was finishing up his dinner, so it wouldn’t be long now.
I snuck another peek at him.
Justin Bernard, known as Mr. B to many of the locals, was one of the crankiest old men I’d ever known. A farmer too old to farm anymore, he seemed to view his retirement as a personal ‘fuck you’ from the universe, and vented long and loud to anyone who sat still long enough. He made Terrance look like Miss Congeniality.
Fortunately, he was also a man of routine, which made it easy to follow him. It was hard to stalk someone in a small town; there were no trees or tall grass to hide in, and pesky humans just loved to greet you at max volume, asking how you were doing and if the second cousin of your neighbour still had that rash or whatever. So snoopy.
One last slurp, and I pushed my glass away. Mr. B was on the move. He put his cutlery down with a clank and tossed a couple bills on the table. Then he scooted out from the cracked pleather seat, using the table and his cane to stand.
For the millionth time I wondered if I had the right person, but there was no one else in town over the age of twelve with the initials J.B. Plus he always carried that ratty old bag around, clutching it close like it held something valuable. That was suspicious, right?
I followed him out of the diner and down the street, hands shoved in my pockets and hood pulled over my face. It was five in the evening, a time when humans were busy running errands and coming home from work. I gave them a wide berth, holding my breath any time they passed to avoid getting a snoot-full of body odor and chemicals.
Mr. B disappeared into the pharmacy-slash-dollar store, and I waited a minute or two before heading in after him. He wandered down one of the medicine aisles, so I busied myself pawing through a rack of cheap t-shirts.
What was he doing, anyway? I leaned around the clothing rack and watched him pick up a box, squinting at it through his thick glasses. He put it back, picked up another, and read that one.
I sighed. This might take a while.
Absently, I sorted through the shirts on the rack until one caught my eye. ‘#1 Daughter’ sprawled in blocky letters across the front. It was obscenely bold, and tacky as hell.
I grinned. I should get this. Mom would think it was hilarious. Even better, it would annoy the hell out of Terrance. There was nothing more entertaining than that.
My smile faded as I stared at the letters. I wasn’t the number one daughter; I was number two.
The t-shirt trembled in my hands as a wave of panic flooded me. What if I screwed up the interview? Not only would Gloria refuse to help me find Delilah, but I’d be in so much trouble.
It was hard enough to get permission to leave the Pack territory; if I messed this up, I’d be stuck here for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t get the chance to search for Delilah myself.
I rubbed a fist into my eyes, telling myself to calm down. Terrance and Gord had been drilling me for months. I practiced interview questions. I practiced Shifting. I desensitized myself to humans. Hell, I’d even practiced smiling.
It was going to be okay.
My heart slowed back down, and I took a glance around to see if anyone had witnessed my mental breakdown. Fortunately, the aisles were empty, save for me, and Mr. B. Peeking back around the aisle assured me that the old man was still there, scowling at two boxes, one in each hand. He seemed to have trouble deciding.
I’d been following Mr. B for six months, ever since I got the note. It was just a plain, unexceptional piece of paper stuffed inside a parcel of books I’d ordered, but it threw my whole life into confusion. The note claimed Delilah was alive, and that the writer knew where she was.
It had been over seven years since she disappeared, and I thought I’d accepted the fact that she was dead and I’d never see her again. But the moment I read those words printed in twelve-point Times New Roman, it all came back: the shock of loss and grief that stabbed deep into your soul until you couldn’t breathe.
I obsessed over it for weeks. Mom and Gord picked up on my strange behaviour, and I’m sure they wondered what was wrong with me. I especially worried that Gord would figure it out since I was sure he received a similar note a few months before. I knew that the instant I showed Mom, Gord or Terrance the note they’d dismiss it or take it away. But I wanted answers. I needed them.
It was hard keeping it a secret from Mom and Gord. I wanted to give them hope. When Delilah disappeared, Mom went into a deep depression, forcing my brother to bear the entire responsibility for our family almost overnight. Even before that, he tried his best to fill in as a father for Delilah and I. So, while Mom struggled with losing a child, and Gord battled losing his sister and feeling like he’d failed to protect his family.
Before I tore open old wounds, I needed concrete evidence that Delilah was alive.
Unfortunately, finding evidence was hard—almost impossible—because I was an unimportant member of the Pack who needed permission to leave town. I hit a dead end, and I hit it hard.
Finding Mr. B became my lifeline. Some deep part of me knew he couldn’t be the one, but he was my only hope. And then Gloria held a Pack meeting to announce that we would host an event to change the whole fucking world: an interview showing proof that werewolves existed. And she was looking for volunteers.
The opportunity to do the interview was a miracle. A chance to prove I’d grown up, that I could handle intense responsibility.
That night, I asked Terrance for permission to speak to Gloria. He didn’t like it, but I pleaded and argued and guilted him into agreeing. I spilled my guts to Gloria, explaining that after all these years, I wanted my family to have closure. If she agreed to help, I’d offer myself as a sacrificial lamb in the interview and do whatever she wanted.
There was no way she should have agreed. I was just a young, insignificant Pack member; I was no one. But to my shock, she accepted, and I decided not to question it in case she changed her mind. Even if she had other motives, she was still my Alpha and would protect me. She also gave me her world to help find Delilah, so all I needed to do was hold up my end of the bargain.
If I did well on the interview, I would solve nearly all my problems: I’d become an important member of the Pack, possibly even move up the hierarchy in a few places. And from there, I could possibly leave Rocky Mountain House, maybe dig up some dirt on Mr. B.
“What are you doing?”
I jumped and my t-shirt flipped from my hands, hanger clattering to the floor.
“Shit, Anna! You scared me!”
Anna raised eyebrows. “I sure did. How did you not even notice me coming up behind you?”
I put my finger to my lips. “Be quiet, or Mr. B will hear you.”
“What?” she said, leaning around the aisle.
“Seriously, Danny?” she said. “You’re still following him? Why?”
“Because he could be JB from the note.”
She rolled her eyes. “Danny, I highly doubt he’s JB. He’s just an old man shopping for hemorrhoid cream. And why are you so determined to believe that note? It’s suspicious that someone would send it to you in the first place.”
“Not just me,” I said, bringing up my old argument. “Gord got one too. I think.”
“Girl, it’s suspicious as hell,” she said. “Whoever sent it to you is sick in the head and could be dangerous. Maybe I should tell Gord or Terrance after all.”
I glared at her for real, and she flushed and looked away.
“Don’t worry, I would never rat you out,” she said. “But, Danny, I still think this is bad news. With the interview coming up, you can’t afford any trouble. Could you just drop it for a while? At least until things quiet down here? I’ll help you after that, I promise.”
She was making me feel guilty. I’d told Anna about the note, but not about my deal with Gloria. For reasons she wouldn’t talk about, Anna hated our Alpha with a passion. If I told her I’d thrown myself at Gloria’s feet, she wouldn’t talk to me for weeks. It sucked keeping secrets from your best friend, but it was for both of our benefits. As far as she knew, I was doing the interview strictly to raise my status in the Pack.
“Are you sure you found nothing on him?” I asked, evading her pleas.
Anna wasn’t just good with computers, she was great with them. She was an actual hacker and even broke into some databases in town. Not that the public library would hold many juicy secrets, but you never knew. I convinced her to show me his borrowing history, but all we found out was that Mr. B loved historical romance.
“I already told you I didn’t find anything,” my friend said. “And when you’re done staring at old men, would you like to join Noah and I for dinner at my place tonight?”
I hesitated. It had only been an hour since I ate, but my fast metabolism had already destroyed the milkshakes.
“What are you making?” I asked.
“Steak, potatoes and curried broccoli.”
I sighed. “Didn’t we have steaks last time? They were really tough, too.”
She scowled. “Fine. You don’t have to come if you don’t want.”
“Whoa, who, hold on!” I cried, rushing to scoot up beside her. “I never said I wouldn’t come. How could I resist a homemade meal from my favourite person in the universe?”
“Hmm,” she said, acting all cool to cover how pleased she was.
I grinned. Anna was so cute when she got embarrassed. She wore sarcasm and grumpiness like a protective shield, but inside was a gooey marshmallow center.
“You know,” I said, “how about I cook the steaks this time? As a treat?”
She blanched. “Oh God, no,” she said. “I don’t want my apartment to burn down. I still have ten months on my lease.”
“I’ve gotten a lot better since the last time!”
“I have!” I insisted. “Mom’s been teaching me.” I pulled up short. “Wait, I should let her know I’m not coming home for dinner.”
My cell phone was new. Mom got it for me when Gloria announced to the Pack I’d do the interview, insisting I had to call her if I was ever going to be home late. Some people might think it weird, a 23-year-old werewolf still calling home, but Mom was a special case. After everything she’d been through, it was the least I could do.
The call was brief. Mom tried to convince me to bring Anna and Noah home instead of staying with them, but I resisted. The last time I’d done that, Terrance threw a fit. He hated unexpected changes in plans.
Anna’s apartment was on the far west of town, just within town limits. It made midnight runs easy since all she had to do was walk a couple blocks, get naked, and Shift. It was also a twenty-minute stroll from the pharmacy dollar store, giving us time to chat and bicker on the way. I loved fall, especially at dusk when the air was heavy and perfumed, and the softening light made everything mysterious.
When we were about ten minutes away, something caught my attention. The hair on my arms rose and my inner wolf twitched, a sure sign that someone was using Pack magic.
I stopped walking, and the magic faded so quickly I wondered if I imagined it.
“You catch that?” I asked Anna.
She frowned, nose and ears working. “No. Why, what is it?”
The magic brushed against me again, and my wolf stirred, trying to trace it.
“Someone’s over there,” I said, staring at an ally across the road.
Again, she used her senses, then shrugged. “I don’t see, hear, smell, or feel anything. Let’s go.”
“Hold up,” I said. “I want to check it out.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Come on, Danny, I’m hungry.”
“Go ahead without me then,” I said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I started across the street. Behind, I heard Anna shuffle in place, debating whether to come, then give an exasperated sigh and stomped away. I was pretty sure I’d arrive to find my steak burnt to a crisp.
When I crossed the street, heading for the gap between a liquor store and realty office, the magic intensified, and moisture built on my palms. Gord and Terrance always said I was sensitive to Pack magic, this seemed to confirm it. The magic felt like a werewolf’s dominant pressure, but used in a way I’d never experienced and didn’t understand.
Normally, Terrance and Gloria used their dominance to control wolves of the Pack. Dominance helped gather and direct werewolves, even communicate over distances. This was not like that. It felt like the magic was pushing me away, telling me to close my eyes, ears, and nose. It wasn’t blocking my senses; it made me want to ignore them.
I crept closer to the edge, excited by the thought of discovering some mysterious new werewolf magic. And then I realized my mistake. This wasn’t just any dominant wolf’s pressure: It was Gloria’s.
Adrenaline pumped through my blood, urging me to run. I shouldn’t be here. Me and my big nose, poking into where it shouldn’t. Why hadn’t I listened to Anna?
I hadn’t peeked around the corner of the building, and with luck, she hadn’t noticed me. I edged back from the alley, but a voice made me freeze.
“Danielle,” Gloria called. “I know you’re there. Stop hiding and come here.”
Her dominance pushed at me, and I couldn’t refuse. I scuffled around the corner; my invisible tail tucked.
What I saw made me gasp. It was Gloria, all right, radiating violence as she stood over a figure on the ground. My brain stopped working for a moment, terrified. Was she going to hurt me? No, her anger wasn’t directed at me. Yet. I had to be very careful here.
“I said to come,” she repeated, using dominance to turn it into a Command.
An Alpha’s Command was like gravity to a wolf like me, a law of nature I couldn’t escape. If you were strong enough, you could resist it, but I was nowhere near that level. So, against my will, I inched closer, my breath coming fast.
My nose told me it was Phil, a young wolf who joined our Pack only a year ago. I’d wagged my tail at him for a while when he first arrived, until Terrance warned me away. He said the kid would get me in trouble, and while I didn’t believe him then, I sure as hell could believe it now.
“What are you doing here, Danielle?” Gloria asked.
I lifted my gaze and shot it right down again, cowed by the gold I saw there.
“I’m just on my way to Anna’s, ma’am,” I mumbled. “We’re having dinner.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, her cheerful voice at odds with the bloodied figure on the ground. “Well, it’s a shame that you had to witness this. I made a barrier, but you just slipped right in, didn’t you?”
I didn’t reply, terrified I’d say the wrong thing. She could kill me right here, right now, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
“While you’re here,” Gloria said, “I want to ask how you’re coming along. For the interview, I mean. It’s this weekend; are you ready?”
“Yes,” I squeaked. “I’m ready. Terrance says I’m doing really well.”
Her eyes burned holes in me, but I’d spoken only the truth so she wouldn’t hear or smell a hint of falsity.
“Yes, that’s what he tells me as well,” she said after a tense moment. “I’m glad to hear it. This is an important time for our kind, and I’m grateful you’re helping our Pack take its place in history.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say, but Phil saved me from answering when he groaned. Thank God he was alive!
“Is—” My voice cracked, and I cleared it. “Is he okay?”
“Him? He’ll be fine,” Gloria said. “He broke an important Pack rule, so I had to teach him a lesson.”
Phil coughed. “I didn’t–“
Without warning, Gloria’s hand flew out and swiped at him, her claws ripping through clothing and muscle. Phil whimpered and curled up tighter. I felt like peeing my pants.
“It seems he hasn’t learned his lesson yet. You should get going, Danielle. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your dinner. It sounds nice.”
I swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”
Relieved to be dismissed, I turned.
“Oh, and Danielle,” Gloria called, and I almost tripped.
“Don’t tell anyone what you saw here today, understand? It would be embarrassing for Phil, and we don’t want to cause a fuss right before the interview, do we?”
“Right,” I agreed with a dry mouth. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Good. Have a nice dinner, Danielle.”
I nodded and, once around the corner, took off like my tail was on fire.
When I reached the convenience store across from Anna’s apartment, I stopped to give myself time to calm down. What had I just seen? I knew Gloria disciplined Pack members from time to time—even I’d been on the receiving side when my jokes went too far—but I’d never witnessed her beat the living shit out of someone. Whatever Phil did, it must have been bad.
And that weird use of dominant pressure? It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. Was this the true power of Alphas?
I bought a bag of chips and nibbled on them while I walked the rest of the way to Anna’s. My nose told me Noah was nearby, and I looked up to see him standing at the apartment entrance. He waved when he saw me.
“What took you so long?” he asked, when I got close, eyeing my snack. “We were getting worried.”
“It’s nothing,” I said.
He could tell I was lying, but let it go. Noah was good like that.
Anna, on the other hand, would definitely ask questions. I followed Noah inside, my mind racing to come up with a good excuse to hold her off. Even if she suspected something and got mad, it was better than Gloria coming down on us both.
Curled in her favorite spot on her sofa, Anna clacked away at her laptop. Someone already set the table for three, and the delicious smells of beef, broccoli, and buttered potatoes made my mouth water.
“Whatcha’ doing?”, I asked Anna. “Wait, why are there only two chairs at the table? Did you break one?”
Without looking up, she replied, “Perverts don’t get chairs.”
I blinked, confused. Her statement came out of nowhere, but fit in with my plan to forestall questions. So, I just rolled with it.
“Pervert? What do you mean?” I said, and turned on Noah with an accusing glare. “Have you been watching porn on Anna’s computer again?”
Noah shook his head and shot me a look of scorn. “What are you talking about? I’d never do that.”
Of course, he would never search porn on Anna’s laptop — hell, he didn’t even dare touch the thing — but it was a great distraction.
“The pervert is you, dummy,” Anna said to me, closing the laptop. “You’re a weirdo who’s into old human men. And where were you? Did you find anything interesting in the alley?”
“Just a fight,” I said offhand, telling my traitorous heart to calm the fuck down. “And I still think there’s porn on Anna’s computer. That’s why you never let us watch movies on it, right?”
Anna rolled her eyes.
“You’re always so ridiculous,” she told me, sitting in one chair. “And I did break a chair, by the way, so you’ll have to make do with standing or the floor.”
Noah hovered, unsure whether to take the last one or leave it for me. I guided him over and pushed him into it.
“Where will you sit?” he asked.
I gave him a wicked smile, waltzed around the table, and plonked my ass right on Anna’s lap.
“Oooo, good cushion,” I said.
Her face turned beet red, and she tried shoving me away, but I was stronger. After a fuss, she gave up.
“Danny, get off me,” she said.
“Nope. I’m comfy here.”
“I can’t eat like this,” she insisted. Her brows drew together hard, and I knew I was only seconds from pushing her too far.
I gave an enormous sigh and stood. “Too bad,” I told her. “You have a nice, squishy lap.”
She turned even redder. It surprised me how embarrassed she was, but whatever. I’d accomplished my goal of drawing all thoughts from the alley.
Instead of sitting on the floor, I dragged over a rickety ottoman, the finest our local second-hand shop had to offer.
“I only made one for each of us,” Anna said, lifting a plate from another to reveal three stakes marinating in their own juices.
“This won’t be enough,” I told her, stabbing the first one.
She shrugged. “It’s the best I could do for now. Payday is in three days.”
“Want me to chip in?” Noah offered. He grew his teeth and took a massive bite from his steak, chewing with relish.
I was a civil werewolf and used my knife and fork. It was a little tough, but still savoury and delicious. “I can give you some money for mine too.”
Anna looked offended and swallowed before speaking. “As if,” she said. “I’m not so poor that I’d charge my friends for dinner.”
“Well, thanks then,” I said with a full mouth.
Noah and I exchanged looks, and I knew he’d slip her a twenty when she wasn’t looking. I also had ten bucks in my pocket left over from buying the chips. Anna hated charity, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Already, I was forming a plan to excuse myself to use the restroom, and would tuck the money into her sock drawer on the way back. On second thought, her underwear drawer would be better.
I envisioned the look on her face when she discovered the cash, when a knock came at the front door. My heart skipped a beat, wondering if Gloria came by to see if I’d been tattling.
Anna sensed my unrest and shot me a weird glance. Before I could go into full panic mode, the door opened and in waltzed Leigh, a werewolf Gord’s age and mom’s best non-human friend. Her short brown hair looked ruffled from being outside, and her gray eyes brightened to see us.
“Hey, guys,” Leigh called. “I heard you three were hanging out tonight. Rebecca invited me over and asked me to invite you all too.”
Typical of Mom. Even though I told her I’d be eating at Anna’s, she still found a way to bring me home for dinner.
“We’ve already eaten,” I called, fiddling with my half-eaten steak.
Noah licked his lips and gave me a hopeful look. Mom’s food was almost legendary among the Pack. Sometimes I suspected it was the reason Terrance married her.
“Oh, come on,” Lee urged. “She’ll be hurt if you don’t show up.”
“Well…” Anna hedged, looking at me.
I sighed. “Sure, we’d love to come.”
Both my friends beamed, but they might change their minds when they saw the pucker Terrance would go into.
Decision made, we didn’t waste any time wolfing down the steak and as much mashed potato as we could fit in our mouths. Then we all headed for the boundary where town limits met the large stretch of undeveloped land the Pack used to run and hunt.
A small shed sat just inside a barbed wire fence, with signs that read ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Entry’. The Pack owned several of these sheds, placed in strategic areas for werewolves to leave their clothes and valuables during a run.
Carefully checking to make sure no one was around, we stripped and Shifted.
I was done first, as always, and watched the others finish. It was funny how much your appearance changed after Shifting. Beyond the obvious differences between human and wolf, your coloring as a human had no relevance to your wolf form.
Anna, for example, had dark hair, skin and eyes as a human. But her wolf had reddish fur and green eyes, the prettiest in the Pack.
I, on the other hand, was blonde and blue-eyed, with pale skin that would burn if I were human. Yet as a wolf, my fur was black and my eyes were brown. I also weighed about fifty pounds more as a wolf than I did as a human. A rare trait, but not unheard of.
After what felt like ages, everyone completed their Shift, and we took off into the forest at a steady trot.
It was about a twenty-minute run to my house, with us three young ones following Leigh. The dominant wolf took point. A painful lesson I learned the hard way. I’d tried running ahead of Gloria one time on a Pack hunt and got my ass whooped because of it. You never run faster than the Alpha, even if you were faster than her.
Thinking of Gloria took me back to what I’d seen in the alley. Or rather, what I’d felt. I had almost missed that strange dominant pressure, and Anna hadn’t even noticed.
I tried to remember the feeling again. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced it was the same Pack magic I’d always felt from Gloria or Terrance, but manipulated in a way I’d never thought possible. I’d always assumed dominance was something you either had or didn’t, but this unexpected development had me questioning that. There was no way a werewolf was born with this ability.
Until I was sixteen, I’d only ever lived with Gord and Delilah. Gord, of course, bossed his two younger sisters around. It was just the way of things. So, was he naturally more dominant, or did he become that way because he was the oldest and fell into the role?
To me, dominance was a passive thing. Sure, some wolves grew stronger and moved their way up the Pack, but mostly we settled into our places like we were made to be there. Gloria had been the Alpha of Rocky Mountain House long before my family arrived, but she couldn’t have always been an Alpha.
It was ridiculous to imagine a pimply teenage Gloria having her first Shift and suddenly bursting out with amazing powers like the Hulk or something. She must have risen to her position and learned to use her Alpha magic. Which could mean—and I shivered when this thought came to me—that anyone could do it.
My fur was just about standing on end by the time my house came into view, and I welcomed the sight with relief. No need to think about Alpha stuff, or becoming more dominant, I reminded myself. I just had to focus on making it through the interview.
We stopped inside the tree line of my backyard and Shifted back. Shifting twice in a short time was rough, especially for the others, but within fifteen minutes we were all on two legs again. Mom was working in the kitchen, and we crowded in wearing nothing but smiles.
“Come in, come in,” she said, wiping wet hands on her skirts and coming over to hug me.
Her long blonde hair, streaked with gray, flowed down her back like a sleek waterfall. I let my fingers brush it as she put an arm around me and I inhaled her wonderful scent, letting all my worries disappear.
Footsteps came pounding downstairs.
“I thought I sensed you nearby,” Terrance said, scowling at me like it was all my fault the four of us were there. “You can go right back where you came from; there’s not enough food for six.”
“Oh, there’s plenty,” mom said, her eyes telling him to stop being an ass. “I don’t mind eating a little less.”
Terrance remained stubborn. “Danny said they were staying at Anna’s for dinner. I can still smell the meat on them.”
Us lesser wolves shifted uncomfortably as he plunked down in his customary place at the head of the table, confident his orders would be obeyed. Mom, however, had that look in her eye, the one I knew not to mess with.
“Okay then,” she said in a sweet voice. “I asked them to come so that we wouldn’t have leftovers, but it’s fine. I can just turn any extras into meat jello. That’ll keep for a few days, and you can take them with you for lunch.”
Terrance stiffened, and his eyes widened. He fucking hated meat jello, but didn’t dare tell Mom that. I forced down a smile, knowing he’d tear into me if he saw it.
“They can stay,” he grumped. “I just don’t want them making more work for you.” He waved a fork at us. “Have a seat then.”
Mom usually went along with whatever Terrance wanted, but on the rare times she made her mind up about something, she’d get it done. I’d witnessed her make Terrance stand down multiple times over the years, and it gave me so much satisfaction. Mom was just human, but even a fearsome Pack Second was no match for her.
“Thank you,” Mom said warmly, and bent down to give Terrance a peck on the cheek.
He scowled and stood, rushing to the sink to fill his glass with water.
My chest tightened in sympathy for Mom. The ass couldn’t even accept her affection. For the millionth time, I wondered what she ever saw in the guy; and for the millionth time a twinge of guilt knotted in my stomach, that maybe she’d married him to help Gord and I.
Having Terrance as a stepfather meant that, outside of making a huge mistake, no one in the Pack would mess with us. I always wondered if they had a mate Bond, but never could bring myself to ask. It was such an embarrassing, personal thing, like asking about their sex life. I’d been holding my breath past their bedroom door for years.
“Wash up, and let’s eat,” Terrance said.
“Oh, but get dressed first,” Mom told us. “There are clothes in the front closet. I don’t want naked people running around my kitchen if I can help it.”
Leigh snickered, breaking the tense atmosphere. And we all made ourselves presentable for a nice family dinner together.
Danielle. I am here.
I woke up with my head groggy and full of weird dreams about running with a strange Pack. The remnants of the dream lingered, playing tricks on my mind. I remembered flashes of a dark forest, the smell of fecund earth supporting paws that were mine, and yet not mine.
I’d been having dreams like this for six months — around the same time I got the note — but it felt so damn real. Yesterday’s close encounter with Gloria shook me more than I thought.
Downstairs, Terrance moved around in the kitchen, placing dishes into the sink and closing cupboard doors. His footsteps stomped outside, and the engine of his truck started up. I listened to it fade into the distance.
I yawned and stretched, then got myself up. Once I’d brushed my teeth and showered, I went down to scavenge for breakfast. We always kept the fridge and pantry well-stocked; a hungry werewolf was a dangerous werewolf.
Mom came down while I was stuffing my face with ham, eggs, and toast drowned in butter. She sighed at the mess but didn’t scold me.
“Are you packed?” she asked, running water over the dirty pans.
I swallowed before answering. “I got the duffle bag out.”
“So that’s a no, then.”
I shrugged. It was just clothes and stuff. Gloria already picked the outfit I’d wear in the interview – dark gray jeans with a pink blouse and black blazer – but Mom insisted I bring what she called ‘casual wear’. As far as I was concerned, if I wasn’t naked, that was good enough. Who cared about accessories?
“Don’t worry so much, Mom, I don’t need more than a t-shirt and some sweatpants.”
“You’ll need more than that,” she said, pouring a glass of orange juice and sitting with me. “Underwear, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste and snacks, to start with. Since you don’t have work today, I’ll help you pack, and you can go for a run before the meeting.”
“Mom, it’s just an overnight trip,” I said, horrified at the thought of having to haul around luggage.
Mom didn’t just pack; she made lists and debated each item before selecting the most efficient compromise between being prepared and packing light. I still had PTSD from childhood family trips.
“Come on, I don’t need all that crap,” I insisted. “I can always borrow Anna’s stuff.”
“You will not.” She gave me a ‘mom look,’ and pulled out her pocket watch to check the time. “When is the meeting tonight? Seven, I think? Plenty of time.”
She noticed my expression and softened. “If you stop putting it off, it’ll be over before you know it.”
“Can’t you do it?” I whine. “You’re much better at packing than me. I’ll just mess things up and cause you more work.”
She took a sip of juice, and I held my breath while she considered.
“Fine,” she said, and my heart cheered. “I’ll pack, and you can go shake your legs. Stay away from the highways though, they’re dangerous.”
Someone should give me a daughter-of-the-year award for not rolling my eyes at her overprotectiveness. Instead, I gave her a hug and dashed out the door before she changed her mind.
The rest of the day I spent on four legs, running, sniffing, chasing down mice and cute little bunny rabbits. They tasted delicious.
When the sun sunk below the treeline I returned home, taking a good twenty minutes to Shift back into my two-legged form. I quickly showered and threw on some jeans and an old shirt.
Mom was resting in her room, and I poked my head in.
“You coming?” I asked, but she gave a wry shake of her head.
“I’m not feeling well tonight,” she said in a strained voice. “You go on without me.”
I bit my lip, wondering if I should have helped her pack after all.
Mom had one of those weak constitutions you read about in Victorian novels. A day of packing, cleaning and visiting could make her sick with exhaustion. It disappointed me that she couldn’t come, but I gave her a quick kiss on her warm cheek before leaving.
The clubhouse was already crowded when I got there. I’d arrived half an hour early, hoping to get in on the gossip before things started, but it seemed everyone else had the same idea.
“Danny!” Leigh called, giving me a wave as I squeezed through the crowd. “Your mom already told me she wasn’t coming, but that you were on your way. Get into any trouble since I last saw you?”
“Nothing you’ll hear about,” I replied, and she laughed.
Other wolves said hi or lifted their hands in greeting when they saw me. Even if I wasn’t dominant – or maybe because I wasn’t – the Pack was my family, and I took care to treat them as such. Over the years they’d gone from viewing me as a whiny wolf brat to someone helpful and fun to talk to. It cost nothing to be friendly, and I enjoyed making others laugh. Even if the laughter came after some good-natured swearing.
Ah, the days when I was young and stupid. Well, younger and stupider than I was now.
I spotted Noah and his family in the crowd. He had his little sister in his arms, as usual. The kid wasn’t even three, and she had him wrapped around her chubby little fingers. I lifted onto my tiptoes and flapped my hand at him, only to have my arm yanked back down.
“Stop being a nuisance?” Gord grumbled, letting go of my arm and squinting out at the crowd. “Good turnout.”
My brother had the same blue eyes and sandy blonde hair as me, but that is where our similarities ended. While I was content to let my hair frizz after showering and just throw on whatever didn’t smell too bad, Gord took care with his appearance. He kept his hair neatly cut and styled, and chin shaved smooth without a single stubble remaining. Leigh told me once that all the single werewolf women — and many of the single human women — found him irresistibly handsome.
To me, though, he was just my annoying older brother.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my brother, and even if he grumbled at me from time to time, I knew he loved me too. His only real flaw was his rigid personality: he took himself way too seriously. Hanging around Terrance all the time only encouraged stick-up-the-ass tendencies, and I had my hands full adding excitement to his life by teasing him without a shred of mercy or shame.
Which is why, as he scanned the room, I poked him in the ribs repeatedly until he growled at me.
“Duh,” I said once I had his attention. “It’s mandatory to come.”
“Not for human family members.”
I shrugged. As if anyone would miss out on the chance to see the famous Inigo Briggs. I’d already seen him, though, so I was good.
“Speaking of family,” Gord said, “where’s Mom?”
“Home,” I told him. “She’s tired.”
Gord nodded like he’d expected it.
He seemed to be in a decent mood, so I thought I’d try my luck. “Hey, Gord. My favourite brother in the whole world. Care to give me some insider info about what’s been going on in the basement?” I waggled my eyebrows at him.
He gave me a flat look that told me to shut up and stop asking questions.
I tsked at him. “Fine then. Keep your secrets. I’m gonna sit with Anna.”
He reached for me, protesting that I needed to stay put, but Leigh’s timely reappearance saved me from a lecture.
“Hey Gord?” she asked in a respectful tone. She was a year older than him, but Gord was more dominant. “Seth came to the meeting, but he’s having an anxiety attack. Terrance is still in the basement with Gloria.”
Gord squeezed his eyes as if praying for patience.
Seth was one of the local humans in my age group, and one of the strangest people I’d ever met. He insisted it was his destiny to become a werewolf. He came to every single Pack meeting and even tried to join Pack runs. He hoped that one day one of us would bite him, and he’d evolve into a beautiful werewolf butterfly. Which wasn’t happening.
Becoming a werewolf by bite is a nasty old-wives tale humans loved to fantasize about. In reality, there was about a ten percent chance he’d become a werewolf, and a ninety percent chance he’d die a slow, painful death. Needless to say, no one in their right mind would bite him. He never gave up, though. He was determined to become a werewolf, no matter what anyone said.
I felt bad for him. He was a nice guy who had a harsh childhood.
Seth witnessed his mom go wolfmad and die when he was just a kid. Anna, Noah and I had only been able to gather bits and pieces of the story.
They were shopping at the local grocery mart when it happened. One moment Seth’s mom was standing with him at the meat counter, debating whether to have beef or pork for dinner, and the next she was screaming and Shifting right there in public for everyone to see.
The butcher — one of the townspeople who knew about werewolves — recognized what was happening. He grabbed little Seth and yelled at everyone to hide, then locked himself in the walk-in fridge and called Gloria with the phone inside. Seth was still there when they put the poor woman down. I couldn’t even imagine what that must do to a kid.
Anyway, his clinginess and anxiety caused problems, but most of the Pack treated him kindly. Or at least tolerated him.
Gord opened his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Shit,” he said. “I’m supposed to escort the Hunters here. I don’t have time to take care of him.”
I raised my hand. “I’ll do it.”
Both Leigh and Gord stared at me.
“What?” I said. “It’s not a big deal.”
My brother bit his lower lip and scanned the crowd as if looking for a miracle to present itself. “Are you sure, Danny?”
“Of course, I’m sure,” I told him, feeling a little hurt. “I know I can be flakey, but I’m not cruel. I like Seth.”
“You know what to do, right?” he asked.
Leigh slipped away unnoticed, relieved not to have the task handed to her.
“Yes, Gord, I know what to do,” I told him with the patience of a saint. “I’ve seen Terrance calm him down lots of times, and Seth knows me.”
He still hesitated, and I huffed in annoyance.
“Go on, dude,” I said. I took him by the arms, turning him 180 degrees, and gave his back a light push. “Go do what you gotta do. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” he said. “But make sure you get back before the meeting is over. And if you need help—”
I was already walking away. There was only so much fussing a wolf could take. Seriously, I pitied whoever became his Mate one day.
I found Seth outside the clubhouse, talking to himself while he wandered around the green of the first teehole. Of course, that wasn’t the proper name for it, but my version was funnier.
“Seth?” I called out. “It’s me, Danielle,”
He paused at the sound of my voice but continued walking with his arms wrapped around his skinny torso. I could hear his labored breath, and the smell of sweat soured by fear.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “no one else is here. Terrance wanted to come, but he has to corral people. You know how it is.”
Seth wasn’t dangerous, and he wasn’t crazy, so bringing him down from an attack didn’t take any special skills, just patience. You had to talk calmly about nothing and everything and stick with him to make sure he didn’t wander onto the highway or something.
He shot me an anxious look through long, dark bangs. “I — I couldn’t stay there. Too many people. I don’t do well with people.”
“Ya, I get that,” I said. “I’m not a fan of crowds myself.”
“Don’t lie. You’re good with people. Everyone in the Pack likes you.”
“Nah, they just don’t want to piss off Terrance,” I said with a laugh. “Or my Mom. She can get mean when she’s mad.”
He looked startled and stopped shivering long enough to scoff. “Oh please. Your mom’s really nice.”
I beamed like an idiot, hoping to get a smile from him. “Why, thank you! I think she’s pretty awesome too. What I meant was, she doesn’t take shit from anyone. All the Alphas in the world couldn’t go against my mom. I am kind of biased, though.”
Seth nodded but said nothing, and we were silent for a minute while I struggled for something to say.
When he started trembling again, I cleared my throat. “Hey, wanna hunt some rabbits?”
A tentative smile appeared, and his arms loosened. “Are you being serious? None of the other wolves want to teach me. Won’t Terrance be mad?”
“Well, I’m not one of the other wolves,” I told him, tapping my chest with pride. “I am Danielle Waters, bane of Terrance and hunter of cute bunnies. I’m one of a kind.”
“Oooooh, look who’s getting all fussy about the company they keep,” I said, with eyebrows arched high.
He rolled his eyes, but I saw the corners of his mouth sneaking up. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t mind hunting rabbits,” he said. “If you’re willing.”
The kid was relaxing for real now, like a turtle coming out of its shell.
I tossed him a saucy grin. “Of course I’m willing. In fact, it’ll be fun. Okay, so first I’ll teach you how to spot their tracks and spore. That means poop, by the way.”
“I know what spore means,” he said dryly, but padded over and searched the ground with interest.
“We’ll have to get off the green,” I said. “How’s your sniffer, by the way?”
Seth looked confused. “What?”
“Your sense of smell.”
“Oh. Uh… normal human, I guess. Once I become a werewolf, though, I’ll be a lot better.” He sounded embarrassed that he was still a human.
“No worries,” I assured him. “Scenting is an advanced lesson, anyway. First, we have to find traces, then we listen, and later on you can learn to track by scent. Follow me. And be careful where you step. Lots of bunny poop around here.”
I led him into the forest and spent the next half hour pointing out telltale signs of my favorite fluffy snack. Seth was a quick learner, asking insightful questions and never needing me to tell him something twice. By the time I called it a night, I could say with confidence that he was my best student.
“Can we do this again sometime?” he asked as we headed back. The tension that melted away returned the closer we got to the clubhouse, and I bumped against him gently, werewolf style. He realized he was getting stressed again and took a few deep breaths.
“Sure, let’s do it again later,” I said. “I had a lot of fun. It’ll have to be after the interview, though.”
He sighed. “Right. The interview.”
We parted ways in the parking lot, and I made sure he was safely inside before heading home. It felt good being able to help someone for once.
Mom was up when I got home, holding a glass of wine and staring out the kitchen window at the darkening forest beyond. Her expression was heavy and thoughtful, but she looked up with a smile.
“Is it over already?” she asked.
I froze, and my eyes darted to the clock. Fuck. Gord told me to return to the meeting once I’d calmed Seth down, but I kind of forgot.
Mom read me immediately — she always could, even better than wolves sometimes — and shook her head. “You’ll be in trouble for that.”
“I had to help Seth since both Terrance and Gord were busy,” I explained with a wince.
“Hmm. That might get you out of hot water. How is he, by the way?”
“Seth?” I asked. “He’s fine. Well, the same at least.”
Mom’s smile faded, and she looked sad.
“So, what’s left to pack?” I said to change the subject. “Anything I can help with?”
“Yes, I left a few items on your dresser for you to choose from. I already packed your clothes, though. If you get to the city and find only a string bikini in your bag, don’t blame me.”
“Oh haha,” I said, going over and wrapping my arms around her. She smelled like shampoo and spaghetti sauce. “You can’t fool me. I don’t own any bikinis; I prefer to swim in the nude.”
She snorted. “You and every other person in this town. I swear, there are more naked people here in the summer than in some nudist colonies.”
I shrugged. What did you expect from a town owned by werewolves? I snagged a piece of toast left on a plate beside the sink. Mom narrowed her eyes at me — food theft was a no-no for werewolves — but since she loved me, she didn’t try to reclaim it. With a mischievous grin, I made a tactical retreat.
“Are you going to bed already, or avoiding Terrance?” She called after me.
“Neither! I’m going to check on that bikini,” I replied, grabbing the handrail and shoving the rest of the toast into my mouth. I pulled it out again. “Oh ya. If Gord calls to ask where I am, tell him I’ve immigrated to Mexico.”
“Uh huh,” Mom said, and still holding her wine glass, lifted a few fingers in a lazy wave. “Good night, sweetheart.”
I knew she was joking, but I still checked my bag. No bikini, but Mom did pack three pairs of sweatpants and t-shirts. I took out two sets, debated a moment, and put one set back in. Two was more than enough.
A collection of toiletries gathered on my dresser, and I chose items at random, throwing them in my bag with barely a glance. I didn’t bother putting the rest away, knowing Mom would clear them away tomorrow.
It was another two hours before Terrance’s truck arrived. Gravel crunched under his tires, and the engine stopped. I pulled my bedroom curtain aside to peek at the dark forms of Terrance and Gord. They must have had to stay late after the meeting, dealing with all the leadership crap.
Terrance lifted the hood of his truck and fiddled inside while Gord came into the house. I jumped into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin and straining my ears.
Gord sounded tired. “Is Danielle home?”
“No, she has emigrated to Mexico.”
I snickered, pleased that Mom played along with my joke and imagined Gord’s reaction.
“Yes, but leave her be. She needs as much rest as she can get tonight.”
“Did she tell you she skipped out on the meeting? Gloria was embarrassed.”
The blood drained from my face. Oh shit. I hadn’t even thought of that. I was so glad of an excuse to leave that it didn’t even occur to me that my absence would embarrass our Alpha.
“Gloria is a blowhard,” Mom muttered, then sighed. “Is she in a lot of trouble?”
I heard water pouring into a glass and a pause while Gord drank. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I covered for her. But she can’t keep doing this, especially when she has such an important role.”
“It’s stressful for her.”
“It’s stressful for us all. She doesn’t need to add to Gloria’s burden.”
“Since when are you on Gloria’s side?” Mom demanded, her voice rising.
“There are no sides, Mom. If Danielle can’t handle the responsibility of this interview, then she’s screwed. Then we’re all screwed.”
A thick silence followed, broken only by Mom bustling around the kitchen. In a tight voice, she said, “You don’t need to push your sister away to please your Alpha. That’s not how I raised you.”
“Mom — ” Gord said, but didn’t get to finish because Mom burst into sobs. She tried to muffle them — a habit formed from living with werewolves who had sensitive ears — but I heard it, anyway.
“You’ll take care of her, won’t you?” Mom asked in a small voice once she’d gained control of herself.
Tears welled up in my own eyes and I swiped at them. The kitchen floor creaked as Gord moved. And I imagined him walking over and putting his arms around her.
“Yes, Mom, I’ll take care of her. You don’t have to worry.”
“I can’t lose another one of you, Gordy.” Her voice sounded muffled and stuffy from crying. “I wouldn’t survive it.”
Gord’s voice was rough as he said, “I promise, Mom. I won’t let anything happen to either of us. We’ll come back to you.”
I didn’t want to listen anymore. Mom’s grief was more than I could handle right now, so I crept out of bed, staying as quiet as I could, and opened my closet. Digging through piles of laundry and old shoes, I found a cardboard box at the very bottom and pulled it out, cradling it close to my chest. I tip-toed to the window and slid up the sash, grateful Terrance kept the windows and doors oiled.
Cold night air kissed the tip of my nose, my breath puffed white in the faint light of half the moon. The roof shingles felt gritty under my bare feet, lending traction as I crept along the overhang.
The garage roof had been my favorite place to hide when we first moved here, while everything was new and frightening. Quiet nights up there alone helped me through dark days when I was mourning my sister, and even though I seldom climbed up there anymore, it remained a place of peaceful solitude. It was also safe from Terrance, because he would never lower himself to crawl along the roof to find me.
After settling myself into a comfortable position, I placed the box on my knees. My heart picked up as I lifted the lid. Inside were some mementos of my childhood: a shiny silver medal I got when I was young, before the first Shift came. It was the only time I could participate in sports, so the medal meant a lot to me.
There was a picture of my dad, his handsome face grinning as he wrapped an arm around a younger, joyful version of Mom. His face was that of a familiar stranger: someone you knew by sight but never met in person. I rubbed my thumb over the picture, then tucked it aside and pulled out what I was looking for.
It was a book – nothing was special, a cheap fantasy novel popular at the time – and inside, on page fifty-six, a note lay between the pages. I took it out and unfolded it.
Ms. Waters, it read. You don’t know me, but I know your family. I know what happened to your sister. She’s still alive. I can tell you where she is, but I need your help in return. It might take a while, but I’ll find a way to meet with you.
It was signed ‘JB’.
I studied the note, pouring over the words over and over. Like all the times before, no new insights came to me. Why had the writer contacted me like this, and what did they want? More importantly, I hoped to God they were telling the truth about Delilah.
I was doing this interview for her. Every time the pressure seemed to be too much, or Terrance yelled at me to memorize my lines, or the other Pack wolves made bitchy comments behind my back, I came back to this.
Because if she were truly alive, this interview could be her salvation. Hers and mine.
As long as the interview went okay, Gloria would let me leave the Pack to look for her and would even give me resources to do so. She promised me she would.
I held the note over my heart, wondering if I made the right choice. I hurt my family when I volunteered to do the interview. I knew that.
Mom went hysterical and Gord wouldn’t speak to me for almost a week. I cried every day, but remained firm in my choice. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to do it, but when they realized I wouldn’t change my mind, everyone calmed down and adjusted. Mom was sad but resigned to it, and Gord and Terrance threw themselves into preparing me for the interview and any threat that might arise from it. Forest combat lessons were only a small part of the hellish training I’d gone through.
It would all be worth it, though. It had to be.
The shingles were cold as I lay back. I closed my eyes and imagined Delilah as I last remembered her. She was still alive out there somewhere. I could feel it.
What was she doing at that very moment, I wondered? Maybe she was out on a run in her wolf form, wind brushing through her fur and her strong paws tearing up the earth.
The dream from last night entered my mind. I had no proof, but I felt like they were from Delilah. A message just for me, the only person who still believed she was still alive. They started around the same time I got the note, and that couldn’t be a coincidence. Could it?
I sat up and tucked the note back into the box, closing the lid over it. My sister was definitely alive. And I would do anything to get her back.