Continued from Chapter 1…
“Ethan called,” my stepmother Cricket informed me, passing the news (and the mashed potatoes) down the long table that was loaded with food and lined with shifters.
Over the last half hour, the dining hall had filled with excited chattering and laughter as we settled into a weekly community dinner. In fact, the number of bodies present barely fit within the largest room of the dairy-barn-turned-bachelor-quarters that the yahoos had taken over after moving into Haven, clear proof of the event’s success.
I was proud of the sight since this was exactly the type of scene I’d hoped for when I’d first begun merging our two disparate clans together. But we’d achieved our goal in a different way than I’d originally imagined.
Since my father had ruled Haven with an iron fist, I’d initially thought it would be necessary to do the same in order to bring my unruly relatives around to my point of view. To that end, I’d considered making community dinners a mandatory part of pack life. But Wolfie—older and wiser in the ways of pack leadership—had talked me out of the decree.
Instead, we’d turned the yahoos loose on the project, and they’d risen to the occasion with their usual vim and vigor. Under Fen’s capable leadership, the young adults had quickly made their weekly dinners so delicious that even my most hidebound relatives began trickling in to join us after a week or two. Nowadays, nearly everyone attended voluntarily, and young-adult shifters who had grown up in Haven had even begun moving into the spare rooms being built out of what had once been animal stalls around back. The Barn, as the building had been dubbed, had become Haven’s entertainment central for young and old alike.
Not that there weren’t flareups between the two packs, of course. Which is why it took me so long to parse Cricket’s words. I’d been monitoring the attendees, hoping that the dissension I sensed at one end of the long table wouldn’t escalate into outright violence. Yes, I was micromanaging to some extent. But wouldn’t we all be happier if none of my cousins got into a knock-down, drag-out fight with the yahoos like they did last week? Wouldn’t it be better to nip any issues in the bud before a minor disagreement turned into a brawl?
“Your brother,” Cricket elaborated, reaching over to place her cool hand over mine and bringing my attention back to the shifter beside me. “School’s out for the summer, and Ethan wants to go to Australia with a friend instead of coming home. What do you think?”
It felt strange for the woman who had mothered me during most of my childhood ask for my opinion about her own son. But I knew what Cricket was really asking. Was it safe for Ethan—who was only three-quarters werewolf by blood and who had never developed the ability to shift into lupine form—to return home to Haven at last? Was our merged clan stable enough now to protect a pack mate who my less kind relatives had dubbed “meat” and who my father had sent away to boarding school for his own protection?
Yes. Yes, we were. If there was any point to this slow-but-sure campaign to pull my relatives into the twenty-first century, it was to ensure that unconventional pack members like Ethan could consider our village the Haven it was meant to be. Together, Wolfie and I would help my brother fit in as well here as he did in the human world and we’d keep him safe from any unruly shifters who got their tails in a twist over his heritage.
So, I answered both Cricket’s spoken and unspoken questions at the same time. “Ethan should definitely come home for the summer,” I said reassuringly. “When were you thinking of going to pick him up?”
“I wasn’t,” my stepmother replied, neatly turning the tables on me. “Actually, I thought you might do the honors.”
Now my attention was finally dragged fully away from Glen, who I was pretty sure was pouring gravy into the pocket of the next shifter down the line. “Me?” I backpedaled. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. If you don’t want to go, we could send Tia or some of the yahoos….”
Actually, I was just being polite with my evasions. In reality, Cricket’s suggested course of action was a very, very bad idea. What I really wanted to say was: “No way am I going to pick up that ornery little brat.”
The trouble was that, during our shared childhood, Ethan had been Haven’s heir apparent and my father’s beloved right-hand boy. He was the most spoiled four-year-old I’d seen either before or since, and I’d royally detested the kid who held all of the power I craved within his sticky little fists.
Which is why I hadn’t inquired too deeply into my brother’s well-being after Cricket informed me that Ethan was happy at boarding school and wanted to stay on. The truth was, I was willing to do whatever it took to make my only remaining sibling happy…but I had hoped to do so from a healthy distance.
No, I didn’t want to spend five hours in the car with someone who I’d never met in my adult life. And who I didn’t particularly want to meet again either.
“Yes, you,” Cricket said firmly, ignoring my trepidation. My stepmother was such a quiet shifter that it wasn’t until these infrequent flare-ups that you remembered her backbone was made of steel. (Metaphorically only—or at least, so I assumed.) “It’s high time you and your brother got to know one another as adults.”
“He’s not an adult,” I mumbled under my breath. Although, now that I did the math, I guessed my sibling had attained his majority in werewolf parlance during the preceding winter. At a baker’s dozen years younger than me, Ethan would now be fifteen, the same age as Keith and past the time of his first shift (if he’d been able to change shapes, that is). For the sake of comparison, my brother-in-law Dale had recently let his son move into the Barn for the summer, and Keith seemed to have grown into the responsibility of that independence admirably. So who was I to say that Ethan was any less of an adult than my fast-growing nephew?
“Do you want me to come along?” Wolfie asked now, his low rumble breaking into what I had assumed was a private conversation between myself and my stepmother. But that was one of the things I loved most about my mate—his wolf always had mine at the forefront of his thoughts, so my current trepidation wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. The bloodling must have been paying attention to our conversation all along, but Wolfie only stepped in when he thought I really needed help. And, as usual, I completely agreed with his assessment of the current situation.
Still, I was trying not to lean so much on my co-alpha. And my stepmother was right in one respect, at least—if Ethan was going to return home for the summer, I’d have to get to know him eventually. So I shook my head rather than taking Wolfie up on his kind offer, I grabbed Ember before she could nose dive into the bowl of green beans, and I assumed the mantle of power that my mate always donned so effortlessly.
“No, that’s okay,” I told him. “I’ll talk Keith into coming along to keep me awake on the drive, and I’ll bring this rascal too so you can enjoy a day of peace. We’ll go pick up Ethan tomorrow.”