Get caught up on Chapter Two before you finish it…
Wolf Landing was never quiet. But from the moment I stepped out of Robert’s government-issued SUV and waved farewell, two-leggers and four-leggers alike had whirled around me like a cyclone. And there, located at the very center of the storm, stood my mate.
Hunter was glorious as he shifted back and forth between lupine and human shapes with wild abandon, sometimes remembering to pull on a pair of jeans when two-legged and sometimes just showing off his chiseled muscles to all and sundry. Sure, when our paths crossed and his frosty fingers slipped beneath my sweater to caress bare skin, the digits resembled mini-icicles running up and over my hip. But the view alone was well worth a few shivers.
“You know, we can smell it when you’re getting all lustful,” Ginger complained, sneaking up behind me and slipping a party hat onto my head before I managed to dodge away from the colorful cardboard. The elastic snapped a little too forcefully beneath my chin and I playfully flicked my companion’s cheek by way of retaliation.
“If you’re jealous, you can always call your own girlfriend,” I countered, gazing fondly at the young woman who had been one of my initial pack mates way back when our clan was only five members strong and easily fit within the steel confines of my battered station wagon. Her usually sunny temperament had been missing in action for the last week, though, and I had a feeling I knew the reason why. “We’d all like to meet her,” I added.
Evasively, Ginger turned her head aside, and I sighed as her pain bit into my own belly. Both of us knew the twin was afraid of getting too attached to a one-body when our territorial rights—and ability to protect surrounding humans—were still up for grabs. After all, the letter that had come in the day’s mail only granted us probationary pack status. We still needed to attend the regional gathering and win the votes of the majority of the nearby pack leaders before we deemed the property our own from a werewolf point of view.
Since I couldn’t yet fix the underlying issue, I caved to my friend’s doleful body language and changed the subject instead. “Are you going to toss the caber for your team?”
“Hell yeah!” the twin answered, sounding much more like her usual self as she eyed the competition unfolding before us. Unlike me, Ginger saw no reason not to mingle with the big dogs, testing her prowess at each contest of might and agility that Hunter’s far-too-fertile imagination had managed to dream up. I, on the other hand, preferred to stay on the outskirts where my problematic wolf would go unnoticed by the shifters I happened to lead.
But my friend was as adamant and enthusiastic as ever. Slipping her elbow through mine, she dragged me closer to the center of activity before relinquishing her hold as abruptly as she’d first grabbed on. The caber toss was about to begin and apparently my companion’s concern about my wallflower ways paled in comparison with her interest in winning.
Stolen straight out of Scottish legend, the caber was a slender but tall tulip-tree trunk that Lia and Glen had dragged down off the mountainside that very afternoon. The goal was quite a bit trickier, though, than the simple equipment suggested. The winning contestant needed to be able to pick up the massive length of wood by the narrow end, carry it forward several paces in his arms, then flip the trunk end over end until it landed directly in front of him in the twelve-o’clock position.
Cinnamon, it appeared, wasn’t quite up to the task. Despite his lanky build, Ginger’s brother had no problem hefting the caber vertically off the ground. Carrying it forward without whacking the bystanders arrayed across the lawn? That proved to be a significantly more difficult feat.
Plus, gravity wasn’t the only force of nature the redhead had to contend with. “Hey!” Cinnamon complained as a bloodling from the opposing team slipped between his legs, attempting to trip him up.
Oh, did I forget to mention that, to werewolves, even the caber toss was a full-contact sport? Yeah, we weren’t really keen on rules at the best of times. And the twenty wolf-form adolescents making up the bulk of the current audience were growing weary of waiting for the next contest suitable for four paws.
“You lose,” Ginger said gaily as she shoved her brother aside to take his place at the starting line. “Gimme the tree!”
Despite my friend’s enthusiasm, though, I couldn’t help descending back into the brown study Ginger had so recently pulled me out of. The trouble was, I had a sinking suspicion we’d made the wrong decision in claiming the entirety of Arborville and the surrounding countryside as our proposed territory on the application form.
What if rather than winning the safety we all hankered after, our optimistic reach instead prompted other alphas to come sniffing around in such a manner they noticed our rule-breaking ways? What if Hunter’s powerful ex-mentor decided to wreak his vengeance by following the letter of the law and putting packless one-bodies aware of shifter existence—one-bodies like Ginger’s girlfriend and my mother—to death?
Still, I couldn’t mull over possible future disaster scenarios for long. Because a shirtless Hunter was hefting the discarded trunk onto one broad shoulder and approaching Ginger at a lope, making the dead weight of the eight-foot-long pole appear negligible. He nearly vibrated with virility, so I wasn’t surprised to notice that every nearby female, including those in lupine form, focused their complete attention upon his rippling abdominal muscles and narrow waist.
Hunter, however, ignored the larger audience. Instead, his gaze flew directly to mine…then he winked.
For a moment, the knot in my belly eased. And I smiled as Ginger bit her lip and blew on her hands in preparation for following in her brother’s footsteps. The other team had no idea what was about to hit them.
Four bloodlings closed ranks around my teammate, ensuring that no wily opponent could sneak past and throw Ginger off her game. Meanwhile, outside their circle, the larger pack was divided—half hoping Ginger would win the prize on their behalf while the other contingent was betting against the young female’s skill and strength. For my part, I just hoped no one got brained in the process.
So I held my breath as my friend slowly eased the caber upward and watched as she proved that anything she lacked in brawn she easily made up for in fortitude. Soon, the pole towered above all of our heads like a flagpole. Then, seemingly effortlessly, the trouble twin broke into a smooth lope.
Before my friend made her throw, though, Hunter’s chilled hands were pulling me back against his warm body. My mate’s breath teased through my mussed hair, then his broad palms began pushing circles of looseness into knotted muscles. Formerly cold flesh warmed by the minute as the uber-alpha’s inner furnace forced me to forget my worries and relax into his embrace.
“We’ll win,” Hunter whispered, his words barely audible above the cacophony of the crowd. “We always do.”
As if the uber-alpha was speaking directly to her, Ginger slid to a halt at the chalked line and tossed the log deftly forward. As the entire clan looked on with riveted attention, the heavy end of the tulip-tree trunk dipped down at the last moment so the caber struck the ground, sprang upwards, then finally thudded back earthward in the perfect orientation to win her team another twenty points.
And even though our pack was ostensibly divided into two warring factions, the howls of triumph and celebration that rose toward the clear blue sky were now universal. Wolf-form bloodlings frolicked with joy while two-leggers pumped triumphant fists into the air.
“You’re right,” I admitted, no longer certain whether I was speaking to my mate or just to myself. Because Hunter’s point was well made. Our clan was united, so how could we lose? “Together, we’ll find a way to protect our pack.”