"The Seattle wolves are coming into town," I told her. My flip flops made satisfying thwacking sounds against my feet. I walked silent so often that when I could make noise, I rejoiced in it. "I might be late."
"I'll call in delivery on my way home," she offered, and then, before I could remind her, "and I'll make sure to get extra, just in case."
"I'll try not to need it," I promised, and she grinned. She hated it when I brought my work home. I didn't blame her; she'd lost three coffee tables to it and a gorgeous wolf sculpture. I was still trying to find a suitable replacement.
Her ride was waiting, so she gave me a quick, chaste kiss. We weren't out to upset anyone, but I saw no reason at all we couldn't indulge in some of the same discrete public displays of affection that straight couples did.
After all, I wasn't humping her leg in the middle of the street. What more could they want?
I waited until the shuttle was out of sight, carrying her away from my world and into the human one, and then headed back to the house. The Seattle wolves weren't arriving until early afternoon, but that meant I had to compress an entire day's session into one morning to clear my schedule for them. I had a lot of audiences scheduled, too, just my luck.
Sometimes it was a pain in the ass—usually mine—to be pack leader.
There had to be at least twenty-five wolves surrounding her in a semicircle. One gray wolf stood in the middle, pacing back and forth in front of her. He looked bigger than all the others, but Luna wasn't sure if he truly was bigger or just appeared to be because he was the closest. His proximity made Luna believe this was the wolf that had knocked her down, and he seemed to be the only one growling at her. This was the same wolf that growled at her before and caused her to run in the first place. All the other wolves stood by and watched, looking alert but not menacing. The blue eyes of the wolf in the center caused a cold shiver to run through her body. She was scared shitless, but she tried not to show fear, as she'd read somewhere that dogs smelled fear and knew that wolves were also in the canine family. The sadistic wolf with the blue eyes appeared to enjoy tormenting her before he went in for the kill. Funny, she always thought torture and killing for enjoyment were human traits rarely found in the animal kingdom.
Then all thought stopped as the wolf charged her. Luna screamed, lifting her pack just in time to stop the wolf's teeth from sinking into her flesh. The impact slammed her against the tree, but at least the wolf's teeth were embedded in her backpack instead of her neck. As the wolf struggled to get the pack out of his mouth, his claws dug into her arms deep enough to draw blood. Luna knew she needed to do something now, or she was never going to make it. She dug deep, using all the strength she had, and pushed the massive wolf away from her. The wolf took the bag with him when he went flying backwards. Before the wolf had time to rebound, Luna was up off the ground and running toward the Ranger station. There were two smaller wolves standing guard in that direction, but she knew staying there where she was surrounded wasn't an option. Her only choice was to run as fast as she could through them and hope her screams for help would bring someone to her aid before the wolves managed to rip her throat out.
Pale hands slid over her shoulders, looped around her neck, and Sasha leaned back into the warm scent of fur and heather.
Aneira had been running in the woods.
Sasha tilted her head back and smiled up at her lover. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too," Aneira whispered, dipping down to brush her lips over Sasha's. "But, I understood. A summons from the king could not be ignored. What did he want?"
Sasha rubbed her hands along Aneira's sun-kissed arms. "He has asked me to form a new pack. I am to turn in initial numbers within the week."
Aneira stilled against her. "You will be pack alpha?"
"Yes." Sasha smiled. "You will be the pack alpha's mate."
A hesitant smile curved Aneira's lips. "That's a lot of responsibility."
Sasha smelled the uncertainty like a cloying bramble of dying berry bushes. She sat up and pulled away, frowning at her list. The one person she'd wanted to share her fear and joy with wasn't happy about Terfel's decision. "Yes, it is. I think I've earned the responsibility. I've been clawing my way up for as long as I can remember, and I think it's high time someone noticed." She ground her teeth together for a moment before her mind reached out to Aneira's, whispering thought-to-thought, I thought you would be proud he chose me.
Aneira knelt beside her, looked up at her with brown eyes as rich as bear's fur. "I am proud," she breathed. "I'm proud that he has given you this place of honor, but... I worry about my place now. I am no alpha, Sasha, and I have never wanted to be."
"Why are you stopping?" Jade asked. Her hands were holding onto the dashboard, knuckles white.
"Watch," I whispered.
The rolling crash of a boulder grew louder. I threw the truck in reverse as a massive boulder fell just in front of us and blocked both lanes of the road. "I have a plan. Care to go off-roading?" I asked, looking at Jade.
Jade smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "After what I have experienced in just the past few hours, sure, why not? This has got to be a dream."
"This is no dream. I'll pinch you if you want." I cranked the steering wheel right, and we plunged over the side of the mountain. The music was strong and fast, helping me to concentrate. Jade said nothing, only gripped the sissy bar beside the door, her face ashen. I swerved through the oak and pine trees, losing one of my side mirrors. I slammed on my brakes, leaving skid marks in the fallen bracken.
"Do you have any idea what you are doing?" Jade's voice was shaky.
I kept my eyes on the terrain in front of me, watching the old oak tree loom larger in front of us. I smiled, letting my fangs show. The truck slowed down and stopped just before hitting the tree. I sighed, releasing the tension that had grown between my shoulder blades.
"Come on," I said, unhooking my seatbelt and opening the door.
"Where are we going?"
"Deeper into the woods," I answered as I unsheathed my sword and made sure that my taser was charged.
"We're what?" Jade sounded shocked. "Are you looking for a fight?"
"No, I'm looking for answers."
The smell of the deer filled her nostrils. It overrode everything else, set a fire in her mind. Dimly, she could hear the other wolves elsewhere in the forest, in threes and fives, chasing down prey of their own. But this one was hers. She'd seen him twice before, this beautiful buck. She'd watched him, followed him. He was three years old, mature yet unmated. A fine challenge for a pack of wolves, let alone a single bitch.
The deer paused in his nightly walk, looking around cautiously. Had she moved? Had he sensed her? His eyes scanned right over the burrow in which she was crouched, and her hackles raised involuntarily. A tense moment, another, and then the deer continued on. The wolf-bitch waited another few seconds, long enough for the buck to turn fully away, and then sprang from her hiding place. The buck was quick, jumping instantly into a full run. The wolf stayed close behind, eager for the chase, to stretch muscles held in tense readiness for too long.
The buck darted through the woods, over roots, and around ravines, never missing a step. But the wolf had grown up in this forest, too, and had the benefit of a predator's instinct. Little by little, she began to close the gap. The edge of the forest was approaching fast, though. If the buck made it beyond the tree line, he could easily outpace her. The wolf put on a final burst of speed and threw herself into a leap. Her outstreched claws raked against the buck's hindquarters and dug in, dragging the deer to the ground.
The wolf sat beside her fallen foe and gave a keening howl. Slowly, the howl became a scream as the wolf's fur receded, bones shifted, muzzle compressed. In a matter of minutes, where the wolf sat, a naked woman now kneeled. Susan Runningwind placed her hand on the buck's flank and thanked him for his life. Then she took the buck's head into her hands and, as swiftly and gently as she could, snapped the neck to give the dying creature a quick release.
"What are you doing?"Yun hissed softly, her gaze not quite meeting Katya's.
Regaining her balance, Katya pulled her leg free and huffed. "Hunting. This is the part where we hunt the does down, box them in, and kill one."
A smile curved Yun's lips, and she shook her head, looking off into the forest. "You wolves and your pack tactics... No wonder you catch less than half the prey you chase. It is patience that ensures the kill."
Katya crossed her arms, speaking in hushed tones but not hiding her annoyance. "The bevy isn't just going to traipse up to us so we can kill one."
"No," Yun admitted, tilting her head, "but if we move a little downhill and I shift, I can get one near that small stream."
Katya's eyes narrowed. "What stream?"
Yun simply smiled and pointed. Katya followed her finger down the hill. She couldn't see anything until she took several steps to the left, and then a glimmer of light on water caught her attention. She couldn't even hear the stream from here! Her jaw clenched, but she eventually relented with a clipped, "That stream."
"If you wish me to prove myself, you can stay behind and watch," Yun teased, standing and making her way around Katya and toward the stream, stepping carefully but easily down the hillside.